It is time that our nation’s colleges and universities put an end to rape-permissive cultures that exist on too many campuses.
The freedom to learn is inseparable from the freedom to study in a safe, supportive environment. But, tragically, too many of our nation’s campuses suffer from a culture of silence, shame and a shortage of institutional courage when it comes to protecting students from sexual assault.
The Obama administration is determined to reduce the number of sexual assaults on campus — and to end sexually hostile environments, as required by the Title IX civil rights law. As Vice President Joe Biden has said, “Rape is rape — and the sooner universities make that clear, the sooner we can make progress on campus.”
No parent should ever fear for a child’s safety when he or she departs for college. But the painful truth is that sexual violence is far too prevalent today on campus.
In 2012, colleges and universities reported more than 4,800 forcible sex offenses to the federal government, a 50 percent jump since 2009. And just a small percentage of sexual assaults are reported, so the true scope of sexual violence is much larger. Nationally, one in five female students report that they suffered an attempted or completed sexual assault at college, as do 6 percent of male students.
In the vast majority of sexual assaults on campus, the victim knows the perpetrator, and they both often are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, some college officials and law enforcement officers don’t seem to believe “rape is rape” when sexual violence is colored by drinking or drugs.
On too many campuses, the attitude that “boys will be boys” and that survivors share the blame for sexual assaults is reflected in a lack of support for survivors, lax or delayed investigations, flawed grievance and disciplinary proceedings, and lenient punishment for perpetrators.
The overwhelming majority of colleges and universities want to do the right thing to protect students. Yet too few institutional leaders have comprehensively thought through how to comply effectively with the law — including how to educate students about the scourge of sexual assault and how to best prevent sexual violence, assist survivors and mend the school environment.
The good news is that many college leaders are starting to undertake sweeping reforms to make sure their campuses comply with the law and foster safe, supportive climates for students.
In April 2011, our department’s Office for Civil Rights released the first-ever guidance on how colleges must respond to sexual assault complaints to comply with Title IX. Since then, more than 50 universities and colleges have revised their grievance procedures, taken steps to publicize their policies on sexual violence, provided training for staff and administrators, and conducted climate checks.
In addition, investigations by our Office for Civil Rights have prompted numerous universities to make far-ranging agreements with the department to reform their sexual-assault policies. For instance, the State University of New York system reached a comprehensive agreement with the department to improve campus climates, implement policies consistent with Title IX and reopen investigations into past complaints of sexual harassment and violence. This landmark agreement covers all 219,000 students at the 29 SUNY campuses.
Following a joint investigation with the U.S. Department of Justice, the University of Montana-Missoula is taking similar steps to protect victims from sexual violence and enhance training for its 15,000 students.
And last week, our Office for Civil Rights opened a Title IX investigation of Penn State’s sexual-assault policies — where the 56 forcible sexual offenses reported to the federal government in 2012 is more than double the previous year’s tally.
To expand on the administration’s commitment, President Barack Obama last week established an inter-agency White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault charged with building on enforcement efforts and broadening awareness of colleges’ and universities’ obligations to comply with civil rights laws. The president also asked the task force to inform these institutions of practices that have proven effective in preventing and responding to sexual assault.
Those recommendations are likely to involve some version of what might be called the Four C’s: Campus sexual assault policies should be clear, coherent, consistent and set the expectation for a community-wide culture of prevention, support and safety.
Ultimately, our campuses need a shift in both policies and culture. As President Obama says, he wants “every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women … and to intervene if they see somebody else acting inappropriately.”
All members of the campus community bear responsibility for ending campus cultures that tolerate sexual violence. The days of telling survivors they should just forgive and forget sexual assaults must come to an end.
Arne Duncan is U.S. secretary of education.