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Elite colleges investigated after failing to address sexual assault

Published: September 20, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories


In recent years, a slew of sexual assault cases have arisen at elite colleges which have paved the way for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaints deal with the federal laws of Title IX of the Education Amendment and the Clery Act. The investigation has materialized after students and alumni from a number of schools including Swarthmore, Dartmouth, Occidental, USC, Cal-Berkeley and UNC claim that their administrations failed to properly adjudicate campus sex crimes. This group action has followed recent past cases at Amherst, Yale and Wesleyan. In addition to underreporting the number of sexual assaults and rapes, some of the victims also claim that they received backlash for reporting the assault, were persuaded not to report the crime, did not receive support from the school and faced discrimination for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 states that nobody can be discriminated against or excluded from educational programs based on sex. The complainants in these cases believe that the lack of accountability by the school and the perpetrators has led to interference in the student’s education, lives and personal growth. The Clery Act, named after a Lehigh University student who was raped in 1986, states that all schools receiving federal aid must track and disclose all sexual violence on campus, a rule that many schools across the nation have resisted due to the negative publicity of such transparency.

A resident adviser at Swarthmore College, Mia Ferguson, has also prompted the investigation after she lost her job for speaking out publicly about Swarthmore’s failure to deal with the issue. Advisors and fellow students face trepidations, as they must often act as intermediaries between victims and the administration. RAs are required to report incidences of sexual assault but as the case at Swarthmore displays, it can be difficult to give the names of victims who trust the RA and do not want anyone to know. For some mandated reporters, it can appear better not to report a crime for the benefit of the victim than to put them through the process of revealing the case and its details to the public.

“If I had given the victim’s name, she would not have trusted me. No one would have ever trusted me again” said Ferguson in an interview with “Inside Higher Ed.”

These schools are putting up an image of compassion and understanding toward victims, but the reality sometimes differs from this facade.

Hope Brinn, another Swarthmore student, was told by a school official that “the male student’s admission that he had harassed her was punishment enough,” as reported in the “Huffington Post.” The online news source also stated that Tucker Reed, a victim of sexual assault at USC, said that a university official told her that “the goal was not to punish her assailant, but rather to offer an educative process.”

The New York Times reported that an Occidental student was told that she “had nothing to worry about, that she [the administrator] had met with my rapist, and that he didn’t seem like the type of person who would do something like that.”

Andrea Pino, a UNC student who helped file the complaint, believed that the school was more concerned with demonstrating that they cared about assault than actually trying to help victims, and that RAs did not receive enough training and were overwhelmed by the number of cases that they had to manage. UNC sophomore Landen Gambill was charged with honor code violations after reporting her sexual assault and her attacker was later moved to a dormitory near her own. Incidents such as these are prevalent across the country.

Colleges have become more aware of the effect that negative publicity can have on admissions and fundraising as widespread use of social media allows information to leave campuses quicker than ever. Schools often are more concerned with the detriment to the school that a sexual assault can bring, than its short and long-term effects on the victim. The investigation by the Department of Education will hopefully lead to a change in attitude by administrators.