Sexual assault on campus: Dartmouth summit highlights demands for action

The Dartmouth Summit on Sexual Assault comes at a watershed moment, as colleges face a new level of pressure to do right by victims and help shift a culture that too often excuses or even glorifies rape.

As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, the one thing Laura Dunn knew about staying safe was to not walk alone at night. So when she wanted to go from one party to another, she asked two men on her crew team to escort her. Instead, they took her to an apartment one block off campus and raped her, she recounted Tuesday at the Dartmouth Summit on Sexual Assault.

The July 13-17 event has brought together several hundred people, including representatives of 64 colleges and universities, researchers, advocates, federal officials, and others on the front lines of the effort to prevent sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence and harassment on campus.

It comes at a watershed moment, as colleges face a new level of pressure to do right by victims and help shift a culture that too often excuses or even glorifies rape.

Seven years to the day after Ms. Dunn was raped, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued its 2011 Dear Colleague letter, outlining specific ways that colleges need to address sexual harassment and sexual assault under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. 

Because Dunn and other survivors of rape had spoken out about problems such as delayed investigations and traumatizing judicial proceedings, the White House put schools on notice that practices would have to change.

“It was my justice,” Dunn said of the Dear Colleague letter. It was a profound relief after having searched in vain for justice through her university, local law enforcement, and even the Title IX complaint process.

Now colleges and universities around the country are facing a whirlwind of demands to be more proactive. In addition to stepped up Title IX enforcement by OCR, Congress has added new provisions to the Clery Act, which governs campus safety issues. Some institutions have responded quickly, appointing task forces, updating policies, and adding extra training, but many have been slower to change

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, told participants Monday that she’s willing to use her power to withhold federal funds from a school if necessary, though so far OCR has been entering into voluntary agreements in which campuses agree to detailed steps to comply with Title IX.

Despite some confrontational moments between federal officials and college representatives, organizers say the summit is designed to help bridge over such tensions. It’s step one of a long-term project in which interdisciplinary working groups will sort through complicated issues surrounding student privacy, fair adjudication, legal obligations, and partnerships with law enforcement and community groups. They also hope to outline a range of best practices, in areas such as bystander education – to encourage people to intervene in social situations where there’s a risk of violence – that that can be shared more widely throughout higher education.

“This really is a pivotal moment,” says summit attendee Ruth Jones, the Title IX coordinator at Occidental College in Los Angeles, referring to the demands on colleges to respond to sexual assault. The summit has given her inspiration, she says, including ideas about how to expand partnerships with community groups.

Universities are legitimately grappling with the level of expertise needed to investigate sexual assault in light of research showing that a large percentage of campus offenders (as in society overall) are serial rapists, says conference co-organizer David Lisak, an expert on interpersonal violence and a forensic consultant.

More than a year ago, Mr. Lisak dreamed up the summit along with Claudia Bayliff, an attorney and educator who has worked on issues of sexual assault for 25 years, including military prevention efforts. In their hunt for financial support, Dartmouth agreed to host and pay for the summit.

Dartmouth’s role has been viewed with skepticism by some, partly because Dartmouth has been under pressure from student activists for what they call a “rape problem,” and it is one of more than 60 campuses under investigation by OCR for possible Title IX violations. 

But organizers and participants said the lineup of expert presenters was unprecedented, and they were hopeful that the working-group approach would help accelerate progress.

“I never thought I’d see the day that we’d have a summit on sexual assault at Dartmouth,” said Susan Brison, the head of Dartmouth’s philosophy department.

Professor Brison shared with the audience her own experiences of rape and its aftermath, and credited young survivors like Dunn for stepping out publicly to show that sexual assault is not merely interpersonal but is also a civil rights issue.

“It’s no small thing that you are undertaking,” Lynn Rosenthal, the White House adviser on violence against women, told the audience Tuesday afternoon. But “if we get this right … we will have a cohort of college students who leave school knowing that sexual assault is unacceptable.”

Dunn said survivors would keep up the pressure because it’s still the norm that students who have been drinking are often blamed for being raped. She demanded that campuses get past complaints that they need more time or money to address the problems. Schools need to remove people from campus who make it unsafe, she said, but there are still many that assign essays or videos as a so-called consequence for rape. “Sexual violence will continue until there is a cost” to those who commit it, she said.

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