Campus assaults: Students deserve a tougher response by colleges

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Two universities in Pennsylvania — Carnegie Mellon and Penn State — are among the 55 nationwide under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for the way they handle complaints of sexual assault on campus. At the same time, a White House task force has proposed new guidelines to help colleges and universities protect their students from sexual violence by other students.

Although it’s gratifying that federal officials and higher education leaders are getting serious about the problem, it’s disappointing that it’s taken this long. Studies and research suggest that one of five female college students is the victim of some sort of sexual assault during her years on campus. Yet only one of eight assaults gets reported.

Younger students are more likely to be assault victims than older ones. Most victims know their assailants. Drinking or ingestion of drugs can prevent them from repelling an attack.

Victims’ accounts of the aftermath often have a depressing similarity. School officials, police and prosecutors try to dissuade them from bringing charges against their attackers, or delay an investigation. They continue to see their assailants on campus, unpunished.

That’s why it’s time that the Education Department reviewed the performance of colleges and universities in response to sexual-assault cases. Carnegie Mellon and Penn State said they were cooperating and federal officials emphasized that a school’s presence on the list does not mean it has acted illegally.

The White House task force guidelines include such useful suggestions as teaching bystanders how to intervene to prevent a sexual assault. 

They propose ways to improve reporting of assaults while maintaining confidentiality. Better education of students on the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse is also essential.

The guidelines call for standardized online surveys that would allow assault victims to come forward anonymously and report how their cases were handled. Done correctly, they could provide important insights into the scope of the problem nationwide.

Students and parents have as much right to know a university’s record on campus safety as they do its amenities or academic ranking. Schools that are dedicated to the value of free inquiry need to be transparent about even a bad record on sexual assaults — and resolve to correct it.

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