Not too long ago, a woman who was sexually assaulted on campus might understandably have felt that her experience was, if not unique, at least uncommon. Colleges, worried about their reputations, often downplayed such incidents, sweeping rape accusations under the rug, underreporting assault allegations or failing to take meaningful action against perpetrators.
Today, however, it would be difficult for a student anywhere to be unaware of the issue. There are few schools in the country — big or small, public or private — that are not agonizing over how best to address what is increasingly seen as an epidemic of sexual assault. Even President Obama has taken on the subject, asserting at a news conference in January that an estimated 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in college. Usually, the crime is committed by someone she knows, often by someone who has done it before.
This month, the U.S. Department of Education said it was investigating no fewer than 55 institutions of higher learning for possible mishandling of sexual assault complaints. The same week, a White House task force released its first report, a general overview that emphasizes measures to prevent assault, flags some of the confusing reporting protocol and offers a checklist for drafting a comprehensive policy to prevent sexual misconduct. Misconduct includes not just sexual assault — which is non-consensual sexual contact or intercourse or an attempt at it — but also sexual harassment, dating violence, stalking and intimidation.
These are important steps toward changing a pernicious culture that for many years allowed students — overwhelmingly female students — to be victimized without effective recourse. But addressing sexual assault is complicated. Schools are not law enforcement agencies; they’re not set up to conduct investigations or hold trials or render verdicts, yet they are required to do so under federal law. In establishing procedures to deal with sexual assault, they must be sure that victims are treated with respect, that complaints are taken seriously and pursued vigorously — and that the due process rights of the accused are not abridged.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES