The Other Side of the College Sexual Assault Crisis



And excerpt from the cover story in Newsweek:


Colleges have recently ramped up their investigation of sexual assault accusations because a 19-page letter told them to do so. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter. It clarified that sexual violence is a subset of sexual harassment, which in an education setting falls under Title IX of the Education Amendments. The OCR threatened to investigate schools thought to be insufficiently zealous with sexual assault cases, and if it found a school had violated Title IX, the OCR might rescind federal funding.

“We were seeing quite a bit of noncompliance and quite a bit of concern around the country,” says Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, who believes the “Dear Colleague” letter did its job. “I think we’ve seen just a cataclysmic change around the country in terms of attention to the issue, responsiveness to it, and training, preparation for our students so that we can see safer campuses,” she says. The OCR is investigating 152 colleges for their handling of sexual violence claims, and, she adds, complaints about sexual violence at colleges have increased more than 400 percent.

Victims’ advocates say the OCR letter helped destigmatize sexual assault and encourages survivors to report. But a less-told consequence is the tendency by schools to trample due process rights for the accused, according to some higher education and legal experts. “There was for a long time a perception that colleges were not responsive at all to claims of sexual misconduct,” says Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. These days, however, “a growing number of people are starting to be concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.”

“I think probably a lot of colleges translated the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter as ‘favor the victim,’” says Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators and president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, which consults with schools. “We very quietly started to say to our clients.… Don’t overcorrect on this because it will touch off a spate of litigation by accused individuals.”

The message, he adds, was “You went too far. Swing the pendulum back.” Sokolow says schools didn’t heed the warning and resented the suggestion. “[We] really took it on the chin. I mean, this was such an unpopular thing for us to say. And it does not feel good in any way, shape or form to have been absolutely right.”

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