When a group of fraternity pledges at Yale University marched across campus chanting "No means yes!" last autumn, the incident sparked a national discussion about the extent to which colleges must educate young people about consent and must respond when sexual violence occurs on campus.
In the months that followed, Yale's Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter issued an apology for its members' conduct, the university launched an investigation, and 16 students and recent alumni filed a joint federal civil rights complaint alleging that Yale's cumulative failure to address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault has resulted in a "hostile environment."
One female complainant said the environment "precludes women from having the same equal opportunity to the Yale education as their male counterparts."
Yale is now under federal investigation by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and the university could, in an extreme outcome, lose federal funding as a result.
Why would it lose federal funding? Colleges and universities that receive such funding must comply with the mandate of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which outlaws discrimination in education on the basis of sex.
Most people think of Title IX only in terms of equality in women's sports. But sexual harassment and sexual assault are considered forms of sex discrimination -- and are covered -- under Title IX. In the name of equal access, colleges must take steps to prevent them and protect students who report they have been victimized.
A spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights said last week the government would prefer to help campuses fine-tune their programs than act punitively against schools found to be noncompliant.
Before the office began its Yale investigation, Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali, of the Office of Civil Rights, was preparing a 19-page letter to all school districts, colleges and universities across the country that get federal funding -- the first time that office has issued explicit guidelines on how to comply with Title IX on issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and take proactive steps to prevent these incidents.
Among the requirements, colleges must distribute a non-discrimination policy, have a Title IX officer and a grievance procedure in place to "adequately, reliably and impartially" address all complaints. After an incident is reported, the school must inform all parties of the outcome of its investigation and take steps to prevent any recurrence of the behavior or retaliation for making the report.
The letter reminds colleges not to keep their investigations in-house. They must inform students of their right to file a criminal complaint and, should they do so, campus officials must not wait for police to investigate before initiating a Title IX investigation.
Local college administrators, like many of their colleagues nationwide, said they plan to examine their existing programs to make sure they are doing everything the law requires.
Robert Hill, vice chancellor of public affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "In response to the DCL [Dear Colleague Letter], the university is reviewing all of the things that Pitt currently does to determine that the letter and spirit of the new guidance, to support compliance with proscribed sexual behavior under Title IX, are appropriately implemented."
Pitt has a Title IX coordinator on staff, the campus runs a sex-assault services program and, Mr. Hill said, "The Pitt police department and student judicial coordinator are well-equipped to appropriately address victim needs." The university also educates students, faculty and staff about sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
Bridget Fare, spokeswoman for Duquesne University, said, "We take the issue very seriously and have had a process for many years that is handled through our affirmative action officer. However, we are reviewing our process and procedures to ensure that they are consistent with the letter from the Department of Education."
She added, "We have programs and trainings for employees and students on the topic, as well as administrative policies and sections of our student code of conduct. Our police department also works very collaboratively with the city police department."
On the legislative front, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and fellow Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington introduced in April the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, an amendment to Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that would require colleges and universities to spell out their policies regarding sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
The bill also directs colleges to begin teaching something called "bystander education," which involves training students how to intervene and prevent a potential assault before it happens.
One of the cutting-edge programs in bystander education is the Green Dot program at the University of Kentucky, which puts the onus of protecting students on the community as a whole. The voluntary program asks participating students to sign a pledge that they will find a way to intervene in any situation that they feel has a high risk for potential violence.
Ms. Ali, the assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, made it clear in her letter that the numbers make these matters paramount. Experts in the field frequently note that statistics on sexual violence are grossly under-reported.
The majority of perpetrators are known to their victims. On a college campus, they are often fellow students.
"Some students are away for the first time in their lives with a lot of freedom," said Alison Hall, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. "It's certainly no secret that there is drinking involved in college life.
"Alcohol plays a huge role in sexual violence, whether it's the victim or the perpetrator who is intoxicated. When one or both are drunk, it's hard to communicate the refusal to have sex or it may be difficult for one to hear that the other has said no."
She said that "a lot of times colleges don't really understand how they should respond to these reports."
Pitt's main campus averaged five reports of forcible rape between 2007 and 2009, according to federal data on campus safety and security. Carnegie Mellon University averaged four reports of forcible rape in that time period. Point Park University reported one forcible rape on campus during that three-year period but averaged one rape report per year off campus.
Duquesne averaged 1.3 forcible rapes in that time span.
Ms. Hall, of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, emphasized that some sexual assaults may not show up in those numbers. "We get a lot of students who are enrolled at local colleges that call us directly. We're not sure if they've ever contacted their college," she said.
"As an agency focused on the treatment and prevention of sexual violence, I would certainly invite dialogue with the universities and colleges in our area so that they can respond properly and develop prevention programs to reduce these crimes."
Gabrielle Banks: firstname.lastname@example.org .