Sexual assault and harassment on college campuses have finally gotten the attention of federal authorities charged with monitoring compliance with Title’s IX sex discrimination prohibition.
The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines for how schools must respond to sexual harassment. With students heading back to colleges and universities this month, now is the time to heed the Department of Education’s call to action to address the serious issue of campus sexual misconduct.
Recent studies estimate that 20 percent of young women and 6 percent of young men will experience a completed or attempted rape during their college career. In addition, almost two-thirds of college students report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, with nearly one-third of students reporting being touched, grabbed or forced to do something sexual. Such victimization can cause physical, emotional and educational consequences that may be lifelong. Many promising students become unable to complete their education and achieve their goals. Some victims are so traumatized, they become suicidal.
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Although more generally known for its provisions related to female participation in athletics, it also prohibits discrimination in other aspects of educational programs, including sexual harassment. By accepting tens of millions in taxpayer dollars from the federal government, educational institutions agree to conform to federal anti-discrimination laws.
However, in spite of more than 41 years since the enactment of Title IX, compliance is sparse at best.
The federal government is finally taking corrective action, but recent criticism of its actions are misinformed and undermines the purpose of Title IX. Throughout its guidance, the Department of Education repeatedly emphasizes the importance of impartiality. Federal authorities are not broadening the definition of sexual harassment. They are requiring clear, accessible policies and procedures to encourage reporting and prevent more severe or pervasive misconduct.
They have not weakened the standard for evaluating sexual misconduct or denied the accused fair treatment. They have confirmed an appropriate standard that was already used on 80 percent of campuses and have given victims the same rights accorded the accused. They require interim measures necessary to eliminate a hostile environment, make campuses safer, and help victimized students stay in school and complete their education.
Despite statements to the contrary, the departments of Justice and Education are not encouraging schools to mete out inappropriate discipline, but instead are seeking to ensure that colleges and universities provide students with clear messaging that will allow for and encourage prevention of sexual misconduct. Recent criticism suggests that simply asking someone for a date would amount to sexual harassment that would subject a student to discipline or a college to a Title IX violation; such criticism is absurd and trivializes the severity of campus sexual assault and harassment.
For too long, campus victims of sexual misconduct have suffered in unresponsive campus environments embedded with victim-blaming myths. Much like women in the military, students have struggled through confusing policies and systems seeking justice, but instead have been re-traumatized and wind up experiencing adverse academic and career consequences. And much like women in the military, college women are raising their voices in protest over these conditions.
Our schools need to do more, not less, to prevent sexual harassment, deter sexual predators on campus, and respond appropriately to the troubling frequency of sexual misconduct. Indeed, institutions of higher education should be striving to create model communities that are free of discrimination, sexual misconduct and violence. We welcome the federal government’s willingness to flex its muscle to make this happen.
Carol E. Tracy is executive director and Terry L. Fromson is managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project.