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IMPACT: Official calls mishandling of sexual assault cases 'staggering'

Education secretary accuses colleges of 'misplaced sense of values and priorities'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has berated the approach taken by some colleges and universities for their handling of allegations of campus sex assaults, examined in collaborative reporting by iWatch News, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, and National Public Radio.

“The misplaced sense of values and priorities in some of these cases is staggering,” said Duncan in an April 4 appearance with Vice President Joe Biden at the University of New Hampshire.

The Education Department, meanwhile, is issuing the first federal guidelines for schools investigating reports of campus sexual assaults. Department officials say they have made the issue a priority in the past year. The collaborative project by reporters in numerous states had documented mishandling of campus sexual assault cases by colleges and universities across the country. In some cases, those found to have committed assault escaped tough sanctions, such as expulsion.

A number of findings highlighted in those reports were raised by Duncan. “As caring adults, as parents, and leaders we must deal with the brutal truth and the facts around these incidents can be shocking,” he said.

He expressed concern about cases in which victims were not informed of their rights, or were subject to gag orders from their school’s to prevent them from discussing the outcome of their investigation. Duncan also said there was a problem with investigations that dragged on for so long that the alleged perpetrators withdrew from school before being disciplined.

Duncan said that the new guidelines offer practical examples of proactive efforts to prevent sexual violence on campuses.

“So there is a great deal of information spelled out in our guidance. We have to do better, and we have to do better now,” he said.

Schools are required, under a federal law known as Title IX, to fully investigate allegations of campus sexual assault. Title IX prohibits discrimination on campuses receiving federal funds, including discrimination against victims of sexual assault or harassment.

In the past, school administrators have said that the federal guidelines weren’t clear in how schools should handle cases where a sexual assault had occurred.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting reported in February on the case of a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston who was found responsible for a 2009 sexual assault on a fellow student. His only sanctions were probation, an order to stay away from the victim and a mandate to participate in an educational workshop.

The victim filed a complaint with OCR, but its investigation found that the sanctions were appropriate.

Biden called on schools to be leaders in tackling the prevalence of sexual assaults on campuses. He cited an example of a college’s judicial board dismissing a student’s case because the victim was drinking.

“Rape is rape is rape and the sooner universities make that clear, the sooner we’ll begin to make progress on campuses,” said Biden.

Biden, who helped write the federal Violence Against Women Act while he was in the U.S. Senate, raised his voice when speaking about sexual violence.

“When it comes to sexual abuse, it’s quite simple, no means no if you’re drunk or if you’re sober,” Biden said. “No means no if you’re in a bed, in a dorm, or on the street. No means no even if you said yes at first and you changed your mind. No means no and it’s a crime to disregard no.”

The guidelines do require schools to take steps to ensure the protection of victims. Those include providing escorts on campus, ensuring the victim and alleged perpetrator do not attend the same classes, and arranging for the victim to re-take a class without penalty.

Vicki Banyard, co-director of the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations and a psychology professor, said that the federal government should recommend sanctions for perpetrators as a next step in the process for handling cases of sexual assault.

“It’s about taking all the important steps to get people talking about it and to think about what is the appropriate response,” said Banyard. “The appropriate response isn’t to do nothing or to not believe the victims, which has been what victims have been getting for a long time.”

Students who listened to Biden speak said that UNH does a good job of publicizing and making available the resources for victims of sexual assault.

UNH sophomore Chaquanzha Stephenson said her friend was sexually assaulted and sought help through the UNH “Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program,” established in 1978 and one of the first of its kind in the country.

“I do know a person who utilized the services and they were awesome to her and she’s very thankful,” said Stephenson. “She was nervous to go at first and she went and she got all the help she needed.”

Still, Stephenson and another student, Brenna McLaughlan, said the new federal guidelines issued Monday fell short in that they did not mandate specific types of sanctions for students found responsible for sexual assault.

“If you do something bad you have to face some sort of consequence and (if) you’re just slapped on the wrist it’s going to continue to happen,” said Stephenson.

McLaughlan agreed.

“I think the government should enforce strict punishment. It shouldn’t be each university deciding different punishments for people who are found guilty of rape,” McLaughlan said.

Most victims of campus sexual assault chose not to bring their cases to the criminal justice system and instead rely on campus judicial boards to decide the fate of their assailants.