Cheryl Senter / AP
Vice President Joe Biden pauses while speaking about the high rates of sexual assault in schools and on college campuses across the country, at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., on April 4. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (r.) also spoke about a new White House guidance to schools on how to respond to complaints of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

White House targets sexual assault on campus

The Obama administration announced Monday a new directive outlining schools' responsibilities when students bring complaints of sexual assault or sexual harassment on campus.

Vice President Joe Biden and the Department of Education are urging America’s colleges, universities, and secondary schools to do more to prevent and address sexual assault.

For the first time, the federal government has issued guidance to schools under the umbrella of Title IX – the law normally associated with gender equity in sports – on how to address issues of sexual assault. According to a 2007 survey financed by the Justice Department, 1 in 5 undergraduate women are victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, as 1 in 16 undergraduate men.

“Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” said Vice President Biden in a speech Monday at the University of New Hampshire, where he spoke passionately about the broader problems of violence against women and on-campus violence. “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.”

The Department sent schools a letter including reminders that:

  • Title IX protects students from all sexual harassment.
  • Schools need to have clear systems in place for grievances – and make sure students are aware of them.
  • A criminal investigation does not relieve the school of its own need to investigate any complaint, and schools must investigate complaints promptly, rather than waiting for the conclusion of a criminal investigation, as some have done in the past.
  • In evaluating cases, schools must use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof in meting out punishment – the standard used in civil lawsuits – as in, was it "more likely than not" that sexual violence occurred? Currently, some schools use the stronger “clear and convincing” standard generally used by the criminal courts.
  • All students who bring forward complaints must be informed that they have the right to an investigation. Schools must furthermore tell the complaining student the outcome of the investigation. In the past, some schools worried that this would violate the alleged perpetrator’s privacy rights.
  • At any hearing during the school’s Title IX investigation, all parties must have equal opportunity to present evidence and witnesses.

The letter also recommends numerous educational steps that schools can take to prevent sexual violence and harassment, and gives specific suggestions for ways the school can help a victim feel safe and get counseling during an investigation.

“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. She notes that even though Title IX became law in 1972, this is the first time the Office of Civil Rights has come out with comprehensive policy on sexual violence. “It is a critical reminder, or wake-up call, for colleges and universities that this isn’t something that can be swept under the rug, and that is happening on their campuses.”

And not only on college campuses.

American high schools see nearly 4,000 reports of sexual battery and over 800 rapes and attempted rapes each year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at Monday's event. More than 1 in 10 high school girls are physically forced to have sex against their will by the time they graduate, he said.

“Every school would like to think it’s immune from sexual violence,” Secretary Duncan said, “but the facts suggest otherwise.”

In his speech, Duncan said the guidance was needed not just because of the instances of assaults, but from the many examples of how schools dealt with reports improperly, including placing gag orders on the victim, not taking a complaint seriously if alcohol is involved, or dragging out an investigation until the victim withdraws from the school.

“The misplaced sense of values and priorities in some of these cases is staggering,” he said. “We have to do better, and we have to do better now.”

Though the timing is coincidental, Monday's announcement comes on the heels of a complaint from students at Yale University that the school has failed to respond adequately to sexual assault and harassment claims, and the news on Friday that Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is launching an investigation.

Students claimed that Yale has failed to properly respond to both sexual harassment – including fraternity members holding up a sign saying “we love sluts” last fall, and chanting “no means yes” on campus – and to charges of sexual assault and attempted assault.

“When you have a university the caliber of Yale being called on the carpet for this … it’s a great illustration that this can happen to any campus that doesn’t address these issues,” says Ms. Maatz.

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