My friends and I have been infected by the college craze. However, sometimes as we sit and discuss our lighthearted anxieties over housing and meal plans, a more serious fear emerges; we often wonder if we will be able to avoid becoming one of the 25 percent of college women who are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.
“You’re smart, empowered women!” one of my guy friends said when I expressed our fear of sexual assault in college. But a “smart” and “empowered” person is no match to a college that fails to offer women the support needed to seek justice in cases of sexual misconduct. Even if I know self-defense techniques, situations to avoid, and whom to surround myself with, I cannot keep safe on my own. I need support from the institutions around me.
Many students around the country feel similarly unnerved by an inadequate response to sexual misconduct on campus. At Yale, Amherst, Wesleyan, the University of North Carolina (UNC), and most recently Occidental and Swarthmore, students have filed complaints claiming that their schools have not provided an adequate response to sexual misconduct.
A student’s ability to seek justice for sexual misconduct is often limited by a school’s protocol of procedures and punishments. Unfortunately, many students have found that their school does not offer sufficient services to prosecute offenders. At UNC, the front page of the campus newspaper recently condemned the school for having a weak system to arbitrate sexual misconduct. According to the paper, the current structure puts too many unskilled and untrained students in charge of determining the culpability of alleged perpetrators. This criticism comes after the college recently changed its policy on sexual harassment and assault. Still, as the paper noted, “Changes to the system failed to correct the same kind of heinous flaws that a group of current and former students has used as evidence in bringing two federal investigations to UNC.”
An inability to sufficiently punish, expel, and jail collegiate rapists and offenders has forced a number of women to maintain unavoidable daily contact with their assailants. At Occidental, one woman’s rapist was allowed to come back to school even after assaulting two other women because, as the victim told the New York Times, a guidance counselor claimed that he didn’t seem like the type of person to rape somebody: “He didn’t seem like the type of person to do that.”
Throughout Yale’s history, the school has often had a reputation for being unwilling to issue heavy sentences in cases of sexual harassment or assault, and the data seems to bear that out. In January 2012, Yale released its first report on sexual misconduct complaints and their handling. Out of the 52 published complaints, the most serious consequence that the university issued was a one-semester suspension for a student. None of the 14 cases involving sexual assault went to the police. In light of the criticism against Yale’s treatment of sexual harassment complaints and an investigation into these complaints by the Department of Education, the school has revamped its sexual assault policy. The changes include the implementation of a committee on sexual misconduct and a Title IX coordinator at the school. Even with these reforms, the school’s track record still makes me wary.
Schools are supposed to be oases for young adults, but as these examples prove, the threat of sexual assault has shattered that sanctuary for many women. Colleges cannot remain battlegrounds where young women are subject to the prospect of harassment and assault at every turn. No young woman should accept that sexual assault is just another part of college that she must avoid like the “freshman 15” or early morning classes.
Thankfully, the Department of Education recently addressed the high rate of sexual misconduct on campus. In 2011, the department sent colleges a letter noting that “[s]exual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.” This clarification has helped student advocates take on their schools’ inequitable policies and demand fair treatment.
Education and empowerment never thrive in an environment of fear and disrespect. When I go off to college, it’s more important to feel safe on campus than to have access to a newly renovated gym or hundreds of study abroad programs. To gain my confidence, colleges must prove that they will treat sexual misconduct as the serious crime that it is. However, my trust cannot be bought through memos and apologies; I need to see real action.
Colleges can let me know that rape will be taken seriously on campus by punishing rapists with necessarily harsh consequences. They can make me feel safe by talking to public authorities about sexual assault, and by taking grievances and reported sexual assaults seriously and not flippantly brushing them away or subjecting them to flimsy procedures and policies. Please, colleges: Allow me to focus on my studies by keeping the distraction of sexual assault far from my concerns.
As I prepare for my collegiate experience I realize that my four years will have their share of disappointments. Maybe I won’t get the classes I want or have the roommate of my dreams, but that’s OK. However, I will not stay quiet when my college fails to give me the protection, security, and support I deserve. When it comes to sexual misconduct I, and I hope my peers, will never be able to accept anything but justice.