It's Not Just Yale: Are Colleges Doing Enough to Combat Sexual Violence?

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Robert Holmes / Corbis

Yale is hardly alone in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and assault on campus

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Laura Dunn knows that experience all too well. During an investigation that occurred while she was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 2004, Dunn was forced to spend an entire year on campus with one of the men who she says raped her — an experience she calls "horrific." (The other alleged rapist had already graduated by the time Dunn came forward to report the incident.) Dunn says that throughout the course of the investigation the university dragged its feet until time ran out and her alleged assailant graduated. "It was as if they were going above and beyond to ensure nothing would be done in my case," Dunn told TIME. "I felt extremely disappointed to know that the institution in charge of ensuring my safety did not recognize the massive distress the sexual assault caused me. Furthermore, I was disappointed that when I sought justice through their system, I was treated with hostility and disrespect. I was clearly not believed, and was often blamed for what had happened." (In a report released four years after the incident, the Department of Education found that the University of Wisconsin had acted properly, though neither of the men Dunn says raped her were punished.)

Dunn raises an important point that the Office for Civil Rights is attempting to better address: promptness. The department's guidance requires that universities resolve cases "swiftly and appropriately," according to assistant secretary for civil rights Russlyn Ali. The problem with "prompt" is that it varies case by case, university by university. There is no way to require a set schedule for how these investigations should proceed. Some cases have much more complicated issues than others and take much more time to work their way through the system.

"What we are making clear is no matter how long the process takes, the institution has a responsibility to provide interim support for the victim," Ali told TIME. "We've heard from too many students who said they were being revictimized by the process." And that situation may be contributing to the fact that so few women come forward in the first place. The guidance, while it doesn't set specific timetables, will ideally spur universities to change policies that may have not been in the best interest of the victim, according to S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of campus crime. He cited one university that stipulates cases must be resolved by the end of the following semester — that means victims can often be held in limbo for the majority of the year before receiving any form of resolution.

The new directive also clarifies universities' commitment to deal with those incidents that happen off campus. Handling off-campus incidents is an area that colleges and universities have not always been so good at. "There were some institutions that felt if assaults occurred off campus it wasn't their responsibility," Carter told TIME. Though off-campus incidents do not fall under their jurisdiction for criminal prosecution, Carter says they do have a responsibility to carry out the same sort of measures as they do with on-campus incidents to mitigate a hostile environment for the victim, like switching dorms, etc.

And finally, the guidance also clarifies the standard of proof for sexual harassment. "Far too often universities use the higher standard when it comes to Title IX," Ali says. "Colleges need only a 'preponderance of evidence' showing it's more likely than not that a crime occurred." Meaning that even if police don't have enough evidence to take the case to court, a college or university can act. This point is especially supported by Title IX activists and students, including those at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who staged a four-day sit-in in March to demand the college change its policies, which students said were too lenient in their punishment of rape and sexual assault. The standoff ended only after the college agreed to lower its standard of proof and punish those students found guilty of rape by a university investigation with mandatory expulsion.

The department's directive and a new federal bill known as the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act — which was introduced April 14 by Senators Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington — urge, and in the case of the bill, require, more prevention education, which supporters hope will lead to a change in the overall culture of a campus and how sexual violence is seen among students. But even that may not be enough. Melanie Boyd, who is both the director of undergraduate studies in Yale's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, as well as the special adviser to the dean of Yale College on gender issues, told TIME that the Administration going in with policies and rules is important but can only do so much — what really needs to happen is to make incidents like the fraternity's chant socially unacceptable. "We could try to fix this by saying, 'Let's expel the guys who chanted,' but it won't change the culture," she says. "You need a campus community that is really well educated about this, that says, If you do this, no one will come to your parties anymore."

To promote that idea, Yale developed a workshop between members of the campus' student-run Women's Center and a fraternity on topics like what is nonconsensual sex and what are the situations that lead to it. All of which Yale and other universities nationwide, who carry out similar initiatives, hope will go a long way toward increasing the understanding that, despite what any fraternity may chant, no really does mean no.

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