Frustrated and angry over the handling of sexual assault cases at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a group of students and faculty members recently decided to take the matter to the federal government as a civil rights case. Few people had explored this legal terrain, so the Occidental group reached out to women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who had filed a similar complaint – which this month prompted a federal investigation – for insights on how to press their case.
The North Carolina group had taken inspiration, and a few strategic cues, from students who last fall drew attention to the mishandling of sexual assaults at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The Amherst students had, in turn, consulted extensively with women at Yale University.
In the past year, campaigns against sexual assault on college campuses have produced an informal, national network of activists who, while sometimes turning for advice to established advocacy groups, have learned largely from one another. They see the beginnings of what they hope is a snowball effect, with each high-profile complaint, each assault survivor going public, prompting more people on more campuses to follow suit.
"I have received hundreds of letters, Facebook notes, phone calls from students, professors, administrators, survivors saying, 'Here's what's going on here, what do we do about it?'" said Annie Clark, a 2011 North Carolina graduate, and a primary author of the complaint filed against that college in January. "I've heard so many times from survivors, 'You're the first person I've ever told.' Once you create a space for people to talk, they will."
Activists contend that colleges fall short in educating students about sexual assault, encouraging victims to seek help, counseling survivors, reporting the frequency of such crimes, and training the people who investigate and adjudicate cases. Advocates for people brought up on charges tend to agree that campus disciplinary systems are amateurish, but they contend that the result is inadequate protection for the rights of the accused.
When confronted, the colleges often agree, to some extent, with the critiques, and several have overhauled their systems, but they rarely go as far as the critics would like. At Occidental, the college president, Jonathan Veitch, has accused some activists of using damaging tactics to make their case.
The victims' advocates have talked of creating a formal national organization, but much of their success so far stems from their use of modern media, allowing them to connect, collect information and draw attention in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago.
Andrea Pino, a North Carolina junior and the other main author of that complaint, said she was moved by what she saw online last year from Amherst, including a series of photos of sexual assault survivors. Through Twitter, she contacted Dana Bolger, one of the leading activists at Amherst, and she and Ms. Clark had their first conversation with her through Skype.
Some activists are conscious of speaking to the broadest of audiences, as when Ms. Clark, Ms. Pino or Alexandra Brodsky, one of the women behind a complaint filed against Yale, write for Web sites like The Huffington Post or Slate. But more often, they are addressing just their campuses, and then are stunned to find that people far away are watching.
"We really started to get student buy-in when we started our blog, and started using Tumblr and Facebook and Twitter," said Audrey Logan, a senior at Occidental and a co-founder of the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition. "Then all of a sudden we were getting messages from other schools, even other countries."
The most extreme example came last October, when Angie Epifano, a former Amherst student, wrote an essay for a student newspaper saying that she was raped there, and then treated poorly by the college. The article has drawn millions of hits from around the world, and helped spur an overhaul of Amherst's handling of sexual assault.
Activists say the most important change the Internet has made is allowing victims to tell their stories – remaining anonymous if they choose, and reaching vast audiences.
"You don't need to be in a survivors' group meeting to hear these stories anymore," Ms. Bolger said. "The human connection is the same, but social media lets you do it on a completely different scale."
Another change came in 2011, when the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to all colleges about a legal provision against sex-based discrimination, commonly known as Title IX. The letter did not markedly change interpretation of the law; instead, it reminded colleges of obligations that many of them had ignored, and signaled that there was a new seriousness in Washington about enforcing them.
"Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX," the letter said.
About the same time, a group of students and alumni filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against Yale. The complaint focused on harassment, not violence, but it drew widespread attention because of Yale's prominence and because the federal office took it seriously enough to investigate.
The case was settled a year later, after federal regulators – though not all the complainants – were satisfied that Yale had sufficiently improved its procedures.
The Amherst activists looked into the possibility of a Title IX complaint and decided against it, but not before comparing notes with their counterparts at Yale. So when Ms. Bolger heard from the women at North Carolina, she referred them to Ms. Brodsky.
The North Carolina group drafted and filed a Title IX complaint, and the women at Occidental say they will file one soon.
"You go online and it becomes obvious that this is a problem that others have addressed and that you can address it on your own campus, and that is how we came to it," said Caroline Heldman, a political science professor at Occidental who will sign onto the complaint.
"In this uncharted territory, we're all relying on people who are only six months or a year ahead of us."
Correction: March 19, 2013, Tuesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Andrea Pino's standing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a junior, not a senior.education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.