Preventing Sexual Assault

Freedom from harassment is part of students' right to an equal education.
Girl on campus photo by Jeff Capeshop

Photo by Jeff Capeshop.

On April 4, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the University of New Hampshire, where they announced new guidance to colleges on sexual assault.

The guidance, in the form of a  “Dear Colleague” letter from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, reminds high schools and federally funded colleges of their obligations under Title IX, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. The message is that schools must take responsibility for preventing and punishing acts of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, in order  to protect the rights of students to equal education.

A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 20 to 25 percent of women will be victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while at college. Most colleges and universities don’t respond adequately to this crisis, according to a detailed investigation published by the Center for Public Integrity in 2010. A companion series on NPR depicted a scenario repeated across the country: Female students who brought sexual assault complaints reported being further traumatized by the process, and outcome, of college investigations.

The government’s announcement comes at a time of increasingly high-profile student activism on the issue. In March, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania made changes to its sexual assault policy after protesting students occupied an administration building for four days. Yale students and alumni lodged a detailed complaint with the U.S. Education Department that prompted an investigation of the college’s sexual assault policy.

Strengthened legislation could make the new guidelines more enforceable. A bill sponsored by Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Campus SaVE (Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act), would update the Clery Act to include new provisions to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus.