For sexual assualt on campus, ‘no school is immune'

Sexual assault a nationwide challenge

University of Iowa students Sharon Kann (left) and Rachel Beck hold up signs at the Pentacrest in Iowa City, as part of a Feb. 24 protest against University of Iowa’s sexual assault policy. (Jusin Wan/The Gazette)
University of Iowa students Sharon Kann (left) and Rachel Beck hold up signs at the Pentacrest in Iowa City, as part of a Feb. 24 protest against University of Iowa’s sexual assault policy. (Jusin Wan/The Gazette)

As a University of Iowa student with a sister also enrolled, he’s “outraged” by the “rape culture” on campus.

The student, and other anonymous posters, have been sharing their stories and opinions on sexual violence via a new UI student-initiated website launched last month following a string of campus sexual assaults.

“She has been raped twice since she started here … . Let that sink in,” the student wrote. “There is not enough being done to protect the women on this campus.”

Through the website – and via protests, letters and campus events – UI students and community members have demanded administrators improve their response to sexual assault, upgrade prevention efforts and bolster resources.

Their demands and the university’s response, including UI President Sally Mason’s six-point plan to combat sexual violence, have drawn local, statewide and national attention.

But the UI isn’t the only university under the sex-assault spotlight. Some, in fact, are calling growing demands for improved handling of campus rape and sexual assault a “national movement.”

“Campus sexual assault is happening everywhere – no school is immune,” said Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager for the American Association of University Women in Washington D.C. “It’s a big issue, thanks in part to the fact that survivors have been willing to come out of the shadows and talk.”

On top of individual efforts to end campus sex assault by survivors and college administrators, federal initiatives and mandates are driving the issue forward.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education announced guidance to help schools understand obligations in regard to preventing and responding to sex assault. In 2012, the federal government revised its definition of rape to include violence against men and to better reflect “the realities of sexual assault.”

One year ago,Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, updating the Campus Sexual Violence Act by imposing new requirements for colleges around annual security reports, prevention efforts and disciplinary proceedings.

The act took effect this month, although guidelines for the new rules still are being ironed out.

And the White House in January convened a Campus Sexual Assault Task Force charged with leading the effort to address campus sexual assault, in part by ensuring higher education institutions comply with federal law.

“We are working together to make sure this issue is at the forefront of what schools and administrators are thinking about,” Hedgepeth said.

‘Walking the walk'

Nearly one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, the American Association of University Women reports. Complaints of sex assault have increased 88 percent since the federal policy guidance in 2011.

And the Education Department, as of mid-February, had 39 open investigations into sexual violence on college campuses, including cases at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Penn State University.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act hopes to address what the White House called “jarring” statistics by requiring universities to add domestic violence, dating violence and stalking to its annual crime reports, adopt specific discipline procedures, and institute certain policies, such as personnel training, among other actions.

Hedgepeth said the initiatives require a real commitment from college and university presidents to end campus sex assault.

“They need to be talking the talk and walking the walk,” she said.

Some universities have fallen short by failing to hire a Title IX coordinator or slacking in their crime reporting, for example.

“But people are paying attention now,” Hedgepeth said. “And that will continue.”

Although the UI – in many areas – was in compliance with the new mandates before they took effect, administrators said they’re using the act to review policies, update language and stay on top of the issue.

The UI, for example, recently completed a stalking policy review and changed five policies to include stalking prohibition language, said Monique DiCarlo, UI sexual misconduct response coordinator and deputy Title IX coordinator.

“We were already doing most of it … but part of that was knowing that this was coming and that we were going to need to include it in our policies,” DiCarlo said.

The UI also has used the act to update online information and training, strengthen educational outreach and improve training. And DiCarlo said the UI is planning to do a policy review around domestic violence and dating violence similar to the one it did for stalking.

Beyond the minimum federal requirements, DiCarlo said, the UI shapes its sex assault response and prevention efforts around student and staff feedback and nationwide best practices.

“That allows you to do more than the bare minimum,” she said.

Iowa State University’s stepped-up efforts to address sexual violence on campus include mandatory training for all employees and students. Staff training started in December, and 82 percent had been trained through early March.

The new student training launched Jan. 28, and about 40 percent have been trained.

ISU’s Office of Equal Opportunity also has been more active in providing “face-to-face training” for all graduate students, community advisers, associate deans, department chairs, student athletes, mentors, tutors, new employees, and various colleges and schools, according to John McCarroll, executive director for ISU’s Office of University Relations.

The goal is to help “transform the university culture,” increase awareness, and empower victims and witnesses to report offenses.

‘It gets very complicated’

But despite new federal mandates and university efforts to comply, criticism persists. UI students have questioned administrators’ ability to follow through on promises, and they’ve shared horror stories about botched responses to reports of sexual violence.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said her organization is helping universities and administrators comply with the changing laws. But, she said, it can be difficult.

Some schools, for example, don’t have the resources that larger institutions have – they might not even have a staff attorney, Meloy said. Or, for some non-traditional universities with a larger mix of adult and residential students, requirements might fall into a grey area, making compliance challenging.

For example, Meloy said, what should universities do when an alleged perpetrator is not a student but the victim is?

“It gets very complicated when you are thinking about it,” she said. “It all sounds easy and like a good idea, but when you really start drilling it down to situations and looking at how this interacts with the provisions … it all gets much more complicated.”

Funding also is a concern, and Meloy said some schools are struggling to meet the federal requirements because of the “level of resources they have to put on this issue.” And if institutions fail to comply with the new crime statistic reporting requirements, for example, they can be fined tens of thousands of dollars.

“That can add up to a significant amount in fines,” Meloy said.

To some degree, she said, it feels as if universities and administrators are being set up to fail.

“It is so complicated that institutions find it difficult to be in full compliance,” she said. “The amount of detail that is mandated is, perhaps, excessive.”

In general, Meloy said, administrators are trying to “do the right thing.”

“But they are under the microscope at the moment,” she said. “This seems to be getting so much attention that I’m hard-pressed to think of something else that compares.”

In Iowa, the UI has received the most attention of late for its response to sexual violence, but Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter told The Gazette last week that the board expects to hear reports from each public university in April on their actions and initiatives around campus sexual assault.

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