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College sexual assault: 10 questions to ask when choosing a school

Here are some tools to help parents and students decide if a school is sufficiently addressing safety and responding appropriately to reports of sexual misconduct.

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    Two students walk across an open space on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., April 30, 2015.
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* Editor's note: Join us on Facebook Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET for a special chat with education reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, who will be joined by the mother of a rape survivor as they explore how parents and their college-age children can take a stand against sexual violence.

As the problem of campus sexual assault gains more attention, parents of prospective college students may wonder whether the schools they are considering are sufficiently addressing student safety – and responding both compassionately and fairly to reports of sexual misconduct. 

One resource that each school is required to provide annually is known in shorthand as a Clery report, which includes crime data and safety policies. These can typically be found online.

But the numbers of sexual assaults in Clery reports don’t mean much in isolation.

“If there are zeros, it doesn’t mean a campus is safe,” says Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus in Wayne, Pa. Higher numbers often indicate it’s “an environment where people feel comfortable reporting” incidents, she says, which could also mean the campus provides good support to victims.

The 32 National Campus Safety Initiative – a project of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, set up to honor the 32 Virginia Tech shooting victims – is piloting a self-assessment tool for universities. The tool has hundreds of questions in nine areas, one of which is sexual assault. Schools will be able to compare themselves with peers, and they can opt to make their answers public, says S. Daniel Carter, director of the initiative.

Mr. Carter recommends that prospective students and parents look for colleges that can answer yes to these questions:

  1. Do you have an office dedicated to sexual-violence prevention and response?
  2. Do you have an accessible, understandable policy that expressly prohibits sexual violence?
  3. Do you provide sexual-violence programming for all new students, and ongoing programming throughout the school year?
  4. Do you provide confidential support and resources, such as an advocate and mental health counseling, to sexual assault survivors?
  5. Do you have a sexual assault response team (SART), bringing a coordinated response to reports of sexual assault and including professionals in fields ranging from law enforcement to mental health?

Another resource is the list of schools being investigated by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for possible violations of Title IX in their handling of sexual misconduct complaints. This list is not updated automatically online, but the public can contact OCR to request the list at any time. It recently included more than 100 schools.

For those interested in assessing a school’s disciplinary process, Carter also recommends these questions:

  1. Do you allow the accuser and accused to each have an adviser of his or her choice, such as an independent attorney, present during proceedings?
  2. Do you use the “preponderance of the evidence” (more likely than not) standard to determine responsibility?
  3. Do you unconditionally provide the outcome of proceedings in writing simultaneously to the accuser and accused?
  4. Do you specify time frames for each stage of the process?
  5. Do you permit both the accuser and accused to appeal?

Students and parents should also consider whether a campus has a binge-drinking culture, which could be an indicator of higher rates of sexual assault, says Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a nonprofit that offers free and reduced-fee assistance to sexual assault survivors.

Another factor is prevention programs and the degree to which students participate. A growing number of schools aim to empower students to help create a safer culture, through programs such as Green Dot, Mentors in Violence Prevention, and Bringing in the Bystander.

Students are best prepared if they’ve been talking with parents about respect, relationships, sexuality, and alcohol long before it’s time to start college. But amid the rush of applications, financial aid decisions, and plans to attend a dream school, many don’t want to hear about the possibility of sexual assault, says Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston who has brought Title IX cases against universities.

Rather than simply focus on safety, Ms. Murphy says, “I’ve tried hard to push the conversation into a civil rights dialogue” about gender equity on campus. “It’s a much more celebratory way to talk about issues that should matter to parents of kids heading off to college.”

Here are some organizations that offer helpful resources:

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