Campus Disclosure Crucial in Combating Sexual Assault

By Carly Stern

Sexual Assault Awareness Month demonstration and visual display on the lawn in front of the Lillis Business School on University of Oregon campus.

 

“90 percent of [sexual assault accusations]…fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

These are the chilling words of Candice Jackson, leader of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

With the support of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Jackson began investigating policies enacted by the Obama administration that increased sexual assault protections. Last month, the Office for Civil Rights announced a plan to “scale back” Title IX investigations. 

Title IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting sexual harassment, sexual violence or gender-based discrimination that interferes with a person’s ability to pursue educational opportunities. Title IX is supplemented by the Clery Act, a policy requiring universities that receive financial aid to publish a yearly crime report ­­which includes sexual violence.

In May 2014, the Obama administration published a list of universities under federal investigation for possible violations of Title IX. The rationale underlying this push was simple: transparency leads to greater accountability, creating the capacity for solidarity among victims and informed public dialogue.

This discourse is essential given that at least one in four students will be sexually assaulted while in college. Even with the sobering frequency of this crime, stigma and fear of isolation deter students from coming forward. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an organization that combats sexual violence, estimates that just 20% of college-aged female students report incidents to the police. Declining rates on a Clery report does not necessarily mean that fewer incidents of violence are occurring; often, it signals that students are not reporting them

Meanwhile, Candice Jackson is threatening to end the practice of publicly disclosing Department of Education investigations — a record she deemed a “list of shame”— because it lies beyond her responsibilities “to threaten, punish or facilitate drawing media or public attention” toward institutions. Instead, she recommends relying on the “good faith” of universities to protect students as they see fit.

In the domain of campus investigations, disclosure creates dialogue, and dialogue fosters a sense of connection among survivors. Public discourse has also forced the issue, as well as personal narratives, into national conversations and onto institutional agendas. Indeed, universities are more likely to handle complaints appropriately when they expect to be under a microscope — and sometimes, the public is more effective in terms of spurring action than legal enforcement bodies. For example, the Department of Education has not levied a single fine throughout 419 investigations, while 350 cases remain unresolved. These statistics call for tougher enforcement, heightened transparency and increased public scrutiny — not less. 

Students deserve to know if the university they attend, or plan to attend, is being investigated — just as new residents are notified when moving into a neighborhood with a registered sex offender, or community members are informed that their water supply may be contaminated. Local crime reports have always been public record; sexual assault data should be no different.

As Jackson considers the path forward, she should look to the few institutions that rely on the discretion of leadership to evaluate how these systems fare. For example, federal service academies — including the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy, the Naval Academy and the Military Academy — remain exempt from Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX passed before academies even admitted women, but the exception has endured in the statutes for 35 years. Instead of filing complaints with the Department of Education, military students report incidents up their academy’s chain of command. The uniform code of military justice outlines harsh punishments for offenders, but few sanctions exist when academies violate or mishandle complaints about these offenders. 

Military academies have cultivated a reputation for indifference to assault accusations, with deeply embedded sexism woven into the fabric of their culture. For instance, in March, a Facebook scandal caught public attention when male service members distributed thousands of nude photos of female colleagues, including their names and ranks.

The Defense Department admits that the estimated rate of assault far exceeds the number it records. The Pentagon reported that 12% of academy women and 2% of academy men experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2016. However, anonymous surveys revealed numbers closer to 48% for women and 12% for men. In other words, nearly half of military academy women should expect to encounter harassment. 

It’s also easy to understand why many hesitate to come forward: approximately half of female cadets and midshipmen who reported a sexual assault to the Defense Department experienced retaliatory behavior in 2016.

Therefore, this flawed model should not serve as the blueprint for America’s universities and their more than 20 million students. For, people should not be forced to leave hostile environments, or suffer in silence and isolation within them.

But in trying to stifle national conversations, Jackson has affirmed the power of our stories and the potency of our voices. We can take action by doing the very thing she fears: speaking out. As the Department of Education’s plans unfold, we must take advantage of existing public data to launch informed conversations, write our representatives and support the efforts of advocacy groups. For example, Know Your IX helps survivors access vital support networks and understand their rights.

Together, we can reinforce the notion that transparency is essential to democracy. By doing so, we protect America’s greatest natural resource: its next generation of leaders.

Carly Stern is a senior at Duke University majoring in public policy and pursuing a certificate in policy journalism and media studies. This summer, she served as an intern at the speechwriting firm, West Wing Writers, in Washington, DC.