April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And as commemorating events get underway nationwide, the Center for Public Integrity’s recent project, Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice, continues to resonate in significant ways.
The year-long investigation revealed that students found “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses often face little or no punishment, while their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. Indeed, according to the Center’s probe, student victims can face a depressing litany of barriers that either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time.
Spurred by these findings, national advocacy groups are now circulating a draft of proposed amendments to two federal laws, known as the Clery Act and Title IX, which require schools to respond to claims of sexual assault on campus and to offer key rights to victims. Dubbed the “Campus Sexual Assault Free Environment (SAFE) Blueprint,” the draft outlines nearly two dozen proposed “improvements” to Clery and Title IX — everything from requiring schools to implement a comprehensive process for adjudicating these cases to guaranteeing victim accommodations and mandating prevention education.
Many key provisions would make the college judicial system more transparent and accountable. There are proposed requirements for schools to annually notify students of their Title IX rights; publish a sexual assault policy; and report the number of campus disciplinary proceedings, as well as subsequent findings and sanctions, to the U.S. Education Department. Other provisions would bolster that department’s enforcement of Title IX — by establishing a $27,500 fine for colleges and universities found in violation of the law, for example. A similar civil penalty exists under Clery, and has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines levied against schools over the past decade.
“The points on enforcement grew most strongly out of the [Center] series,” says S. Daniel Carter, of Security on Campus, who drafted the SAFE Blueprint following consultation with lawyers, parents, and student victims, as well as advocacy organizations like the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and Students Active for Ending Rape. “We had the anecdotal information from our cases, but not the full picture about the lack of enforcement of Title IX.”
Carter and his colleagues plan to unveil a final version of the SAFE Blueprint at the Crime Victims’ Rights Forum, a meeting sponsored by the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus, at which victim advocates and law enforcement officials lay out policy priorities and legislative solutions. The forum takes place on April 16 in the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center. By then, Carter hopes to have convinced several members of the Congressional caucus to sign up as sponsors. “We believe now, with your series, we have proof … that these reforms are needed,” he tells PaperTrail.
Education Department officials have already promised to ramp up enforcement of Title IX in the wake of the Center’s investigation. Last month, Russlyn Ali, who heads the department’s Office for Civil Rights, reiterated her pledge to release new guidance on the federal law protecting against sex discrimination. Since then, OCR staffers have been assigned to review an existing 2001 guidance document in light of what one OCR insider describes as “this frustration with the way universities respond to sexual assaults.”
“Our purpose is to try to look at our previous guidance in a new light,” the official adds, “and to provide better direction to universities on how they respond to sexual assaults.” A team of staffers is now working on a draft, the official says; OCR expects to publish its new guidance before the end of September.
Meanwhile, some administrators are rethinking existing policies in the wake of findings by the Center and its partners in the Investigative News Network. The University of Massachusetts has formed a special commission to review the school’s student conduct code, as well as its disciplinary procedures, after the New England Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered the case of a confessed student rapist who received a simple deferred suspension and was allowed to remain on campus. And the University of Wisconsin has begun posting annual sexual assault reports mandated by state law — previously available only by public records requests — online for the first time.
More than 60 student newspapers and college online outlets have also done stories based on the Center’s findings. On Monday, student reporters at The State Press published the latest in a series of stories about the sexual assault policy at Arizona State University after a student victim, in February, filed a civil suit against a fraternity on campus. (The student, Anna Babler, was featured in one of the Center’s stories. Last Friday, reporting done by student journalists at the University of Maryland resulted in a ruling by that state’s attorney general that could force the school administration to disclose the names of students found responsible for sexual assaults.
Even parents of student victims have begun to organize in response to the Center series. Eva, the mother of Margaux J., whose case was highlighted by both the Center and a National Public Radio series, has just filed paperwork to form a nonprofit group called Parents Against Campus Crime, which is intended to help parents navigate the college disciplinary process. The group’s