WASHINGTON — Activists have been pressuring the Department of Education this summer to punish colleges and universities that don’t comply with the law that prohibits sexual violence on campus.
Claiming that the federal government has been too lenient, students and others have collected more than 170,000 signatures on a petition, rallied outside the department’s headquarters and met with officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Meanwhile, a growing number of students have used their own research skills and social media support networks to file federal complaints against their schools.
“The core of the problem is that colleges are seeing rape reports as a PR problem rather than as an issue of helping their students,” said Wagatwe Wanjuki, a member of ED Act Now, the coalition that organized the petition drive.
The Education Department has the power to levy sanctions, the petition said, but instead concludes investigations with voluntary resolution agreements in which schools promise to do better in the future.
“This strategy of all carrot and no stick may be well-meaning,” the petition added, “but it is ineffective, allowing universities to avoid their legal responsibilities at the cost of student safety and academic opportunity.”
Meanwhile, this month a pair of current and former students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was involved in launching two websites to help other students navigate the complaint process: endrapeoncampus.org and knowyourIX.org.
The petition calls on the Education Department to levy sanctions against colleges and universities that don’t comply with Title IX; the Clery Act, which requires schools to report campus crimes; and other relevant laws.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is the landmark civil rights legislation that bans sex discrimination in education, including sexual violence. The law requires schools to “take immediate action” to eliminate sexual harassment or sexual violence, “prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” according to website of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
A statement issued after department officials met with the activists in July said, “While proud of our accomplishments to help prevent and address sexual violence, our conviction is that there is always more that can and should be done. We remain open to feedback.”
Responding to questions by email, the office defended its record, noting that since 2009 it has “pro-actively initiated” 16 reviews of possible cases of sexual violence and harassment and has resolved 94 percent of all the cases it receives inside of 180 days.
“In these investigations, we are not just looking for paper compliance,” the civil rights office wrote. “We strive to develop timely, but comprehensive and effective remedies to create systemic changes on campus.”
The department issued a guidance document in 2011 that spelled out how schools should handle allegations and the steps they should take to prevent new cases.
Ada Meloy, general counsel with the American Council on Education, which represents presidents of colleges and universities, said that schools have paid “a lot of attention” to them, adding that the issues “can be very difficult on a campus because of the need to be careful and fair to both the accuser and the accused.”
Annie E. Clark, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Andrea Pino, a senior at the school, were among five women who filed a complaint against the university in January over its handling and reporting of sexual assaults.
Clark said that both she and Pino “had awful rape stories, but what was even worse was when we came forward and our university either didn’t believe us or mistreated us.”
Pino said universities should treat rape as a crime, not as misconduct.
“It shouldn’t be something people cover up with their pretty brochures and fancy policies,” she said.
In response to their Title IX complaint, the university said that it had revamped its policies to conform to the 2011 federal guidelines. In May, the university created a task force with broad campus representation to improve its system for adjudicating student complaints against other students. The task force has been working this summer to rewrite the policy.
The complaint from Clark, Pino and others remains under investigation, one of eight recently filed by students against other schools, with more expected soon, Clark said. Those schools include Dartmouth College; Swarthmore College; Occidental College; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Southern California.
“What we’re seeing is 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds for the first time taking the law into their own hands,” Clark said. “History shows that the Department of Education has a lot of power to withhold federal funding or impose sanctions, and they weren’t doing any of them."
In California, the Bureau of State Audits plans to look at the University of California, Berkeley, and three other state schools, which weren’t immediately selected, to see whether they’re in compliance with Title IX. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee ordered the study last week after a hearing in which Clark was among those who testified about the need for it.
“Sexual violence is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, particularly in an educational environment,” Assemblyman Anthony Rendon wrote in his request for the audit.
Rendon said that he was particularly concerned with recent allegations by nine women who filed a complaint against UC Berkeley in May that campus officials didn’t take their cases seriously.
Alexandra Brodsky, another leader of the Ed Act Now coalition, said Title IX complaints help change policies but that was not enough. A 2012 graduate of Yale University, she reported an attempted sexual assault at the school during her freshman year, but she said school officials advised her not to pursue formal discipline.
“Yale has much better policies, but in practice things don’t change very much,” she said.
Brodsky and other students filed a complaint against Yale in 2011, arguing the school was not in compliance with Title IX. It resulted in a settlement between the Education Department and the school last year in which the government agreed not to find Yale in noncompliance and Yale agreed to make changes. The settlement specified that Yale’s actions did not amount to an admission that it did anything illegal.
Activists said that enforcing Title IX was key to holding schools accountable, particularly those that repeatedly violate the law.
“Don’t have a sit-down across the table, a plea bargain where the school says, ‘Oh, we promise to comply. We’re so sorry,’” Clark said. “We’re saying, ‘No. You messed up. We hope you do better. We’ll help you do better. . . . But in the meantime you messed up these 35 cases. You knew you were doing it. It was wrong and illegal. Here’s a $5 million fine and you’re fired.’”
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