Turning Challenges into Opportunities: Addressing Sexual Assault on Campuses

The new focus on sexual assault is an opportunity to make real change on campus.

557b8ee85d17a-imageGuest Contributor:  Ellen Eardley, University of Missouri
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Civil Rights and Title IX; Title IX Administrator; Cincinnati Law (’03)

Now more than ever, colleges and universities face new challenges addressing campus sexual assault.

Recently, and not without controversy, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has been used to address sexual violence – an extreme form of sex discrimination.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has made clear that Title IX requires schools to have policies and procedures for responding to sexual violence. This requires careful attention to the rights and needs of students, faculty, and staff who experience and who are accused of sexual violence.

Some commentators have suggested that OCR has asked higher education to undertake a burdensome, and potentially impossible, balancing act. But rather than a burden, these guidelines present an opportunity to make meaningful shifts in addressing and preventing sexual violence. 

Here are four principles to keep in mind:

  • Embrace Transparency

Institutions should be open about the processes used to address sexual violence, as well as the safeguards to ensure fairness to those accused.

Institutions also should consider regularly releasing aggregate data about allegations of sexual violence separate from, and in addition to, data that must be collected under the Clery Act.  A number of institutions have shared reports of sexual violence without compromising the identity and privacy of individual parties.  (See, for example, Yale’s semi-annual report, and the University of Missouri’s annual report).

Sharing de-identified data and clear information about processes builds trust with the campus community, gives shape to the conflicts individuals encounter, and, in turn, helps build a foundation for informed decision-making and institutional change.  For example, assessment of trends may lead to new partnerships across campus for enhanced education regarding sexual violence, consent, power and control, or sexual health.

  • Ground Policies and Practices in Intersectionality

Diverse and intersecting facets of identity, such as race, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity, may impact how individuals view and experience sexual violence or sexual violence allegations.

Campus policies should account for these lived experiences.  For example, an individual who endured race-based violence and the use of racial epithets during an incident of non-consensual sexual intercourse should be able to make a report of sex and race discrimination in one office and utilize one grievance procedure.  Coordination of grievance processes is not only administratively efficient, it also reduces confusion and creates a more intentionally inclusive system.

  • Insist on Respect and Integrity

Grievance processes will not be effective unless they are trusted.  In this connection, the campus must understand that each factual scenario is unique and that all process participants deserve respect. Objective determinations of responsibility must be based on the unique facts and circumstances of each matter, not on overgeneralizations or outside pressures.

In particular, universities must guard against sex-stereotyping and sex-biased decision-making against complainants and respondents.  One helpful approach is to educate decision-makers on the research regarding unconscious biases held by everyone, and to encourage decision-makers to actively work to interrupt their own implicit biases.  Such efforts will have the added benefit of enhancing inclusive excellence for the campus overall.

  • Expand Educational and Preventive Measures

Ideally, institutions will seize this opportunity to educate their communities and prevent sexual violence. Promising initiatives include anti-violence and bystander intervention programs, peer-to-peer facilitated discussions, and interactive theater. Separately, many students may benefit from frank and open discussions of positive sexual health, desires, and communication. The key is to identify campus experts, invest meaningful and continuing resources, and build infrastructure to ensure ongoing co-curricular and professional development experiences for students, staff, and faculty.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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