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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Public Officials Take Steps for Transparency in Sexual Assault Reporting

Published: February 7, 2014
Section: News

Sexual assault on college campuses was a common news topic in 2013. As we enter the second month of 2014, the issue is gaining more movement and traction in the minds of students, college administrators and public officials.

The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights received 30 complaints alleging failures in how the school handled and reported sexual violence on campus last year. An increasing number of new cases and details of currently open or past cases are being released to the public each day. There have long been student activists fighting for increased transparency for the release of sexual crime-related statistics on campus, but only recently does it seem that governmental officials are heeding the calls of victims.

A group of 39 members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Education on Jan. 29 asking for increased transparency, an important step in preventing future sexual assaults on campuses nationwide. The bipartisan group is asking the Office for Civil Rights to release information on which colleges are under or pending investigation of alleged failures in responding to sexual misconduct, as well as which schools have reached resolution agreements or have been fined for past misconduct. They are also asking for it to be mandatory for colleges to post records of past incidents and investigations on the schools website.

Congress additionally asks that colleges be required to conduct exit surveys with graduating seniors, to determine how many students have been sexually assaulted or harassed while at school. This survey would provide a more transparent view of the epidemic and could serve as a tool to see how many cases go unreported. Presently, only the University of Montana is required to take part in these exit surveys as a result of an investigation that found inadequate services and responses to sexual assaults, including the mistreatment and mishandling of victims by campus police.

Democratic Representative from California Jackie Speier, a leader of the group that wrote the letter, stated, “It shouldn’t be a guessing game if the Department of Education has found a history of colleges and universities failing to respond to sexual violence.”

A week before the letter was sent, President Obama announced the formation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force will not create any new laws but will be assigned with making recommendations and finding ways to increase transparency. It will judge how colleges can better prevent sexual assaults and serve the student population. The group will also make sure that schools are currently complying with laws regarding the handling of sexual assault cases.

The task force has 90 days to submit proposals and recommendations. From then on, there will be an annual review of policies, procedures and progress. Members of the task force will include the Attorney General and Secretaries of the Interior, Health and Education, among others.

Although not all sexual assault victims are female and not all perpetrators are male, the majorities are, and President Obama noted that “men have to take more responsibility; men have to intervene.” He went on to say, “I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure in terms of how they are supposed to behave and treat women.”

In a more local perspective, The Boston Globe completed a review of federal statistics among 22 of the metropolitan area’s largest campuses, which revealed that reports of forcible sex offenses rose by about 40 percent between 2008 and 2012, increasing to 113. Students from Amherst College and Emerson College represent two of the 30 schools at which complaints were filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last year. Harvard University has the highest number of sexual assaults in the area, with 38 in 2012, although this increase in reported crimes may not signify an increase in crimes but only in the number reported.

S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiate said, “When we see sexual assault numbers increase, that hopefully means the barriers to reporting are finally beginning to be addressed, which means you are beginning the steps to solve the problem.”

The Boston Globe reports that 88 percent of sexual crimes in college are not formally reported, and a report by the White House estimated that one in five women will experience a sexual assault in college. These findings are startling to students and the public, who see vastly different numbers self-reported by schools. This method of identifying the issue is only a beginning step toward solving the problem.