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White House, Department of Education Targeting Sexual Assaults on Campus

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The White House and the Department of Education have joined forces to address the topic of sexual harassment and assault on college campuses.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off a nationwide awareness initiative on schools’ responsibilities and victims’ rights at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on April 4, 2011.

For the first time in history, the federal government has issued guidance to schools, colleges and universities on how to address issues of sexual assault under Title IX, a law normally associated with gender equity in sports.

Sexual Violence on Campus is Under-Reported

Vice President Biden believes that a nation that prides itself on fighting the abuse of power has an obligation to prevent sexual violence in schools and on college campuses, reports the Associated Press. He spoke passionately about the problem of sexual assault and violence against women on college campuses, while Duncan discussed the new set of guidelines issued to teach schools and colleges how to respond to allegations of sexual assault. The guidelines were issued by Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter on April 4.

The Dear Colleague letter (which are commonly used to distribute general information and policy updates or as a request for information or action) reports that acts of sexual violence in the United States are vastly under-reported, stating that young students are suffering from acts of sexual violence at early ages and the likelihood that they will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate is significant.

According to the letter, recent data shows nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 reported rapes and attempted rapes occurring in U.S. public high schools each year, estimating that more than one in ten girls will have been physically forced to have sexual intercourse by the time they graduate from high school. Nearly 20% of young women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault by the time they get to college.

“Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” Biden said during his speech at the University of New Hampshire. “That’s why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus.” UNH was chosen as the site for the speeches because the school’s violence prevention efforts and victim support services, including 24-hour victim assistance, are highly regarded.

“Rape is rape is rape, and the sooner universities make that clear, the sooner we’ll begin to make progress on campuses,” he stressed, reminding the audience that no means no, reports ABC News. “No means no, if you’re drunk or you’re sober. No means no if you’re in bed in a dorm or on the street, no means no even if you said yes at first and you changed your mind.”

New Guidelines Tell Schools What Procedures to Follow

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that schools, colleges and universities must now adhere to a three-part procedure: distributing a notice of nondiscrimination to students, employees, and others on campuses; designating a Title IX coordinator to oversee complaints; and adopting and publishing grievance procedures that provide “prompt and equitable resolution” of complaints.

In December 2010, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Education Department worked with Eastern Michigan University and Notre Dame College in Ohio as the colleges dramatically revised their policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment in compliance with Title IX. At that time, Ada Meloy, the general counsel for the American Council on Education, commented on the situation by saying “I have heard recently that Office of Civil Rights is quite vigorously pursuing issues related to Title IX and sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Experts read the agreements, which were much more extensive than past ones, as a clear message that the department’s Office for Civil Rights was cracking down on Title IX violations. The new guidelines issued this week elaborate on mandates that officials said colleges had previously misunderstood or not adhered to, Inside Higher Ed explained.

“This will help schools immeasurably in understanding what their responsibilities are. There’s no more shooting in the dark,” says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

Possible Problems

Despite good intentions, some legal experts worry that the guidelines regarding colleges’ investigations and hearings of sexual-assault allegations are “inevitably fraught.” Criminal prosecutors decline to pursue many cases for lack of evidence, while colleges must pursue all allegations under Title IX, explains the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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