Protecting Child Safety at All Levels of Society

White House Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault: Now is our best opportunity for progress and change

WHTaskforceWe are at a crossroads moment to combat sexual assault on college campuses. The combination of bottom-up pressure from grassroots activists, many of them assault survivors themselves who have courageously stepped forward, and top-down leadership from the Department of Education and White House has created a unique moment for reform in the area of campus sexual assault. We know that bold action and improvement is vitally needed, as one in five women will experience sexual assault during her undergraduate years, and dozens of colleges are under investigation for mishandling their responses to sexual assault and other forms of sexual harassment.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released their report last week. I have been slow to write about it because I have been drawn in to reading and research on this issue. I am writing more in book-time than blog time, as Irene van der Zande and I are working to publish Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels later this year. And, I have been working on these issues in depth as a member of the University of North Carolina’s Task Force to recommend changes to the university’s own response to student-student sexual misconduct. The topic is overwhelming and it’s hard to know where to start and stop, without writing the whole book.

So my goal today is to open up the conversation to revisit many times in the future. After immersing myself in the media reactions the White House’s report, I have a few basic reactions to how we are all discussing the topic of sexual assault on campuses.

It is great that we are finally talking about this issue, but we need to realize that in many cases, we are still on square zero trying to get to square one. Here are a few points to try to get us to square one:

Schools have a legal obligation to address sexual harassment, including sexual assault, under Title IX federal law. The Department of Education has issued guidance over the past several years making this obligation clearer and stronger.

The New York Times published a major feature, “Fight Against Sexual Assaults Holds Colleges to Account,” and the first letter published in response to this article asked “If the rape of a college student is a crime, why doesn’t the victim report the crime to the police rather than to the college or university?” I agree that it would be beneficial for law enforcement to be more effective at handling sexual assault, whether or not a victim pursues a criminal case, schools must also do what they can to provide support, remedies and a disciplinary response through their own campus procedures. It is important to note that the criminal justice system can decide whether to proceed with prosecution, but colleges must address every case put before them. This fact has given me more empathy for the challenges that educational institutions face: schools are being asked to deal with some very tough cases, in a student disciplinary context that may have historically been ill-suited to deal with them. Our institutions have been failing miserably in their responses in many cases, and there is no excuse for re-victimizing students through callous or inept response. However, I do think it is important to acknowledge and understand that schools are being asked to take on a very difficult, complex task–one that their other experiences in higher education may not have prepared them for. Knowing this should help guide our responses: roles, responsibilities, resources, as we go forward.

For a quick primer on Title IX’s role in combating campus sexual assault: “Lately, Title IX Has Made Its Presence Felt Beyond The Playing Field,” NPR report by Brian Naylor.

Our larger society is still stuck on victim-blaming. If colleges can learn to treat reporting students with respect and dignity, and offer them support, we’ll be taking a first step on the road to reform.

Victim-blaming is still a huge issue in our whole society. In the complaints against colleges, assault victims have reported that the trauma they experienced by being blamed for their assault by college administrators and others was as severe as the trauma caused by the assault itself. The first step that colleges need to take is to treat students with dignity, respect and humanity when they come forward with a report of sexual assault. Slate reported on three schools, University of New Hampshire, University of Texas at Austin, and Georgetown University, that the White House report mentioned as making progress in addressing sexual assault the right way.

Texas’ Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault published a toolkit last fall to help police talk to adult victims of non-stranger sexual assault, which recommends officers say statements like “I know reporting a sexual assault is hard. It took a lot of courage for you to make this call.”

That is a simple yet transformational, profound step that all colleges and police forces should adopt. Furthermore, even as a disciplinary case/investigation is proceeding through a university, the school can focus on offering support and interim measures, such as changing residence, classes, or getting extensions on class work.

Victim-blaming is a societal issue, not just a college issue. Many discussions I have heard about campus sexual assault have veered into “what do college girls expect to happen if they are drunk” territory very quickly. When radio shows invite listeners to call in, this seems to be a top question, even if the panel of guests has already tried to address it. (See for example, The Diane Rehm Show from April 24th,
“Sexual Assaults On College Campuses And How Colleges And Universities Are Responding.”)

As a whole society, we have not come to terms yet with the idea that sexual assault is a crime and the responsibility lies with the perpetrator, no matter what the victim was doing.

We’re still pretty much in the dark about gender, too.

The conversation about sexual assault almost always portrays a male perpetrator and female victim. We’re missing a whole conversation about LGBTQ issues, and issues about male survivors and female perpetrators. Our narrow assumptions lead to narrow conversations, under-reporting, and additional shame and trauma for survivors who don’t fit the stereotypical profile. Eve beyond campus violence, I think of young men who come to college having experienced childhood sexual abuse, and might be ready to seek support now that they are adults: will they feel like survivor outreach and support efforts are for them, too?

I take the White House’s public service announcement video to talk on the way it handles gender.

While it has some really good points in it about consent, not blaming survivors, and bystander intervention, the framing of “men, we have to protect women” is too limited when it says sexual assault is: “happening to our sisters, and our daughters, our wives, and our friends.” I have mixed feelings about this because I can see the good intentions behind the video, and the value of engaging men in being part of the solution, but I just cannot shake the fact that this framing is patronizing. The right to be free from assault is a human right, not one that stems from being a man’s sister, daughter, wife or friend.

I can see the White House’s “1 is 2 Many” website trying to address gender, saying “While men compromise a smaller number of survivors, male survivors are no less important,” and “Support all survivors regardless of their gender or identity. Listen to their stories without judging or blaming. Offer to go with them to seek resources and services if they want them.” But as we move forward in the effort to end assault, we should keep in mind that we are behind the curve on understanding gender.

Hanna Rosin’s article, “When Men Are Raped” is a must-read. Just two of many remarkable points to consider:

Last year the National Crime Victimization Survey turned up a remarkable statistic. In asking 40,000 households about rape and sexual violence, the survey uncovered that 38 percent of incidents were against men. The number seemed so high that it prompted researcher Lara Stemple to call the Bureau of Justice Statistics to see if it maybe it had made a mistake, or changed its terminology. After all, in years past men had accounted for somewhere between 5 and 14 percent of rape and sexual violence victims. But no, it wasn’t a mistake, officials told her, although they couldn’t explain the rise beyond guessing that maybe it had something to do with the publicity surrounding former football coach Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sex abuse scandal.

Stemple, who works with the Health and Human Rights Project at UCLA, had often wondered whether incidents of sexual violence against men were under-reported. She had once worked on prison reform and knew that jail is a place where sexual violence against men is routine but not counted in the general national statistics.

Emphasis mine.

The idea that prison rape is not even counted as rape reminds me of the antiquated definition of rape which was reformed by the FBI just last year. The old definition “The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” excluded a long list of sexual offenses, including rapes of males. The new definition of rape which went into effect on January 1, 2013 is much more specific and inclusive: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or
anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without
the consent of the victim.” This definition is specific, gender-neutral and consent-based–three big steps forward. These reforms are so new though that colleges need to learn about them, and make sure that as they update their own policies, they are working from a more modern understanding of sexual assault.

Can we make it possible for colleges to succeed?

I want to end with the idea that we should make it possible for colleges to succeed. My daughter will be doing to college in three years, and I would not necessarily steer her away from a school that is currently under investigation over Title IX problems. I believe that most if not all schools have difficulty in grappling with the issue of sexual assault, and the ones who have undergone investigation may be in a good position to address it better in the future.

It is a painful process to be sure. It’s awful to learn that students have not been well-cared for by their schools. Institutions will need to air their failures and past mistakes. Activists and survivors have ever right to be angry about this. But thanks to their pressure and leadership, schools are having to do better. I am very proud of the process that we have undertaken at UNC with our task force. We are set to release our recommendations very soon, so I don’t want to pre-empt that rollout, but I will say that our process has been thorough, thoughtful, focused on fairness and due process for all, and has involved community input from many stakeholders. I feel very fortunate to have been part of this process, as the person representing the larger Chapel Hill community.

Schedule an interview: Dr. Amy Tiemann is a frequent guest expert discussing parenting, child safety, and abuse prevention–through parenting websites, national radio tours, magazines from Redbook to Glamour, and TV including ABC News, the CBS Early Show, and NBC’s Today Show. To schedule an interview, please contact her publicist Jill Dykes, or 919-749-8488

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