Five Myths that Block Effective Strategies Targeting Sexual Assault on College Campuses

fatima-goss-graves-200-x-200Guest Contributor:  Fatima Goss Graves, Senior Vice President for Program, National Women’s Law Center

Students around the country have already begun pouring back onto college campuses, ready to embark on a new academic year. This year many students will return to find their schools under investigation by the Department of Education for failing to effectively address sexual violence on campus.  Title IX’s nearly 45-year-old ban on sex discrimination in education requires schools that take federal dollars –virtually all schools – to take prompt and effective steps to address harassment and violence. With over 200 universities facing pending complaints, the problem of sexual assault finally has caught the attention of the very policymakers and educators who can make a difference.

But efforts to transform the response to sexual assault will fail if focused on the wrong solutions. Here are five myths that can prevent meaningful approaches to combatting sexual assault on college campuses.

  1. MYTH: The campus sexual assault statistics are flawed.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that federal data collections used 23 terms to describe sexual violence. The GAO suggested that the government establish an inter-agency task force to coordinate consistent data collection. That is one solution worth pursuing. Another is for colleges to implement a uniform climate survey, with terms that are common. But colleges already have one of the most important data points from a recent study commissioned by the Association of American Universities. That study found that nearly three-fourths of survivors of sexual assault do not report to anyone. Campuses should focus on increasing the number of students willing to report sexual violence to put themselves on the right track.

  1. MYTH: Sexual assault is a byproduct of college “hookup culture.”

Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who sparked a national outcry after serving only about 3 months for sexual assault, reportedly will launch a speaking tour on the dangers of “drinking and promiscuity.”  He is not the only one homing in on alcohol as a solution to sexual violence. Several universities, including Stanford, have implemented new alcohol policies to combat sexual violence. But the truth is that sexual assault occurs on dry campuses, as well as those with a culture of alcohol. Even when campuses take on alcohol abuse, they also must address a more fundamental problem: a culture that normalizes sexual assault. Addressing sexual violence properly is the first step.

  1. MYTH: Sexual violence is a problem that only the criminal system should address. 

Members of the House of Representatives introduced the misnamed Safe Campus Act during this session of Congress. The bill would require sexual assault survivors to report to police before campus officials could investigate an assault or sanction a student. There’s nothing new about this approach; many schools avoided their independent obligations to keep students safe this way for decades.  It doesn’t work.  Moreover, it wrongly suggests that survivors must choose only one avenue when reporting a sexual assault: the school process or the criminal justice route.  But currently students may select one, the other, both, or (too often) neither.  Whether a survivor seeks assistance like counseling, changes in class schedules or even discipline of an attacker—these are all remedies that only a school, not law enforcement, is equipped to provide.  Campuses that promote mandatory reporting to the police as an antiviolence solution will only push the problem of sexual assault further underground. 

  1. MYTH: The standard applied by schools to resolve sexual assault complaints is unfair to accused students.

In the last year, students found responsible for sexual assault on campus have filed lawsuits challenging the standards schools must apply in their proceedings. It’s worth remembering that the purpose of a college administrative proceeding is to establish whether a violation of the school’s policies and procedures occurred—not to determine criminal or even civil liability. When deciding whether to discipline a student for violating school policies, colleges rightly apply what’s called the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which requires a finding that it is more likely than not that a violation occurred.  There’s nothing unusual about this standard. It applies in all civil rights cases and is consistent with Title IX’s requirements that school procedures be prompt and equitable.

  1. MYTH:  Sexual assault is only an issue at the college level.

Although the current policy landscape is hyper-focused on addressing violence on college campuses, efforts to eradicate this problem can start much earlier. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, student surveys revealed that more than 10% of high school girls and 4% of high school boys were physically forced to have sexual intercourse. The percentage was higher for LGBT students in high school.  Age-appropriate sexual assault prevention and bystander education should start well before students get to college.  And there are new resources from the Department of Education to guide school districts in their efforts to combat sexual assault. Policymakers that pay attention to young people well before college will see benefits not only in k-12 schools, but beyond.

Fatima Goss Graves is Senior Vice President for Program at the National Women’s Law Center. She leads the Center’s broad program agenda to eliminate barriers in employment, education, health and reproductive rights and lift women and families out of poverty. She currently serves on the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace and is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow and an advisor on the American Law Institute Project on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct on Campus.

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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