Five universities in Ohio and Michigan — including both states’ flagship public universities — are 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.
It’s gratifying that federal officials and higher-education leaders are getting serious about this problem. It’s disappointing that it’s taken them this long.
Federal studies and independent 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 about one of eight of these 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 (sometimes without their knowledge) can prevent them from repelling an attack.
Victims’ accounts of the aftermath of their assaults often have a depressing similarity: School officials and local police and prosecutors try to dissuade them from bringing charges or delay even a perfunctory investigation.
They see their assailants on campus, unpunished; the attackers often find new victims. Some victims voluntarily surrender their privacy when they tell their stories to news media or bring complaints under federal civil rights law.
Last week, the Education Department identified 55 colleges and universities whose performance in responding to sexual-assault cases it is reviewing. They include Ohio State University, Denison University, and Wittenberg University in Ohio, and the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.
Federal officials did not release details of their investigation but emphasized that a school’s presence on the list does not mean it has acted illegally. The review at UM includes the expulsion of a football player from the team last December, years after he allegedly violated the school’s policy on sexual misconduct. He has not been charged.
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.
Victim advocates and school officials would get better training. Expanded education of students on the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse is also essential.
The guidelines call for standardized surveys that would allow assault victims to come forward anonymously and report how their cases were handled. Such surveys, which would be posted online, would have to be vetted to prevent the dissemination of false accusations. But done correctly, they could provide important insights into the scope of the problem nationwide.
So-called “date-rape” cases can take time to sort out, when victims need help right away. The rights of the accused must be preserved. But there is no excuse for trivializing such incidents as mere matters of “he said/she said,” or causing a victim to believe that she is somehow at fault, or isn’t credible, or may be victimized again when she seeks resolution.
Students and parents have as much right to know a university’s record on campus safety as they do its academic ranking or the amenities of its dormitories. 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.