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1 in 5 women sexually assaulted while in college

Government initiates inquiry to curb sexual assault on college campuses

As a new academic year begins, the White House has announced that Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, will be part of a pilot program to gauge the extent of sexual assaults on campuses across the country. The plan includes the implementation of prevention programs and helping schools respond more effectively to sexual assault cases. Rutgers’ Center on Violence against Women and Children will conduct an online survey of all undergraduate and graduate students in the spring semester. It will then host focus groups for more in-depth student feedback.

One in five college women is sexually assaulted, usually by someone she knows, according to a government report. Most of those incidents happen during the student’s freshman or sophomore year, and many of the cases go unreported. A campus sexual assault study by the Department of Justice found that about 6 percent of victims of such assaults or attempted assaults are male, but the overwhelming majority of victims are female. 

In April, Barack Obama’s administration created a task force to look into the matter, and an inquiry has been launched at 76 American colleges and universities, from state schools to Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Princeton.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday evening segment The Week Ahead, Thomas Drayton spoke to Sabrina Kowaleski, a survivor of sexual assault and advocate for college sexual assault education and prevention, and to Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Many victims have come forward and faced shame from family members and friends, let alone going to the police or their school,” said Kowaleski.

Drayton asked the guests what brought about change in the fight against sexual assault on college campuses.

“I think that the game changer was the Department of Education’s 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to colleges and universities,” said Harris. “Now the federal government has gotten much more involved in the problem of sexual assault on campus.”

Drayton asked who should ultimately be responsible in taking the lead to address this issue.

“It really needs to be a joint effort,” said Kowaleski. “People don’t trust the police anymore and are unlikely to go to the police knowing that in all likelihood, they will face further judgment and revictimization. I think that colleges have a great opportunity here to reach out and allow these victims to come forward in a meaningful way.”

Harris said that colleges and universities are not equipped to handle serious felony accusations. She said they are “in an excellent position to provide support services to victims and to provide Title IX remedies like changing of class schedules and dorm assignments. But I think, when it comes to adjudicating the guilt or innocence of someone being accused of a very serious crime, that law enforcement really needs to be taking the lead.”

Drayton asked about some schools’ resistance to the idea that their star students, such as athletes or valedictorians, could be sexual predators. “Schools get a lot a publicity and oftentimes a lot of money out of these star students,” said Kowaleski. “Sports games can bring in a lot of money based on attendance and publicity, and to have these people muddied up in this kind of event doesn’t look very good for the school.”

Harris believes that efforts to educate students about sexual assault on campus needs to begin even before they begin college. “Students need to be educated about issues of consent, about alcohol before college, and that needs to continue in college. That is a place where colleges do have a significant role to play.”

A growing number of survivors are winning civil lawsuits. Drayton asked if that has played a role in changing attitudes at universities. “It’s really brought this conversation out into the light, rather than just whispered conversations in dorm rooms,” said Kowaleski. “Students are really starting to questions things and whether or not their school is actually as safe as it would claim to be.”

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