Editorial: Action on Sex Assault

Sexual assault on campus was once a hidden problem, hushed up by colleges and largely unnoticed by the public. Today, the issue is in the media spotlight — and for good reason, given the shocking prevalence of rape at colleges and universities. Two factors, according to recent news accounts, are mainly responsible for the national attention: a push by the Obama administration to enforce civil rights laws pertaining to sexual violence; and political action by students demanding that colleges do more to protect victims.

As Nick Anderson of The Washington Post reported in a story that appeared in this newspaper on Sunday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights focused on sexual assault in a letter to the higher-education community on April 4, 2011. The 19-page letter asserted that sexual harassment of students, including sexual assault, violates Title IX, the civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. It not only explained the requirements of Title IX; it also discussed efforts schools could make to prevent sexual violence and provided examples of remedies that they could use to end such conduct, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

“It was the first time any administration had called out sexual violence as a civil rights issue,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant education secretary for civil rights, told the Post.

The letter put colleges and universities on notice. While they had long been obligated to respond to accusations of sexual harassment and assault under Title IX, complaints were not always vigorously pursued. Victimized students, mostly women, were often deterred by administrative procedures that were complicated, ineffective or both. Sometimes they were discouraged by administrators from registering formal complaints. By issuing guidelines, the federal government signaled that students had recourse to the Office of Civil Rights.

Indeed, the federal interest in sexual assault appears to have galvanized students, who began filing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights in increasing numbers. From last October though April, the office received 43 complaints related to sexual violence. That’s four times as many as it received in 2010. Last week, the department released for the first time the names of all 55 schools, including Dartmouth College, under investigation for possible violations of Title IX in connection with their handling of sexual harassment and violence.

At Dartmouth, as elsewhere, student protests were instrumental in launching the federal probe. Last April, student activists staged a demonstration on campus alleging failure by the administration to adequately respond to sexual assault. Some Dartmouth students later traveled to Washington, D.C., where they joined forces with representatives from other campuses to demand action. Student groups have discovered that this issue resonates across the country, and through social media and a sophisticated national lobbying campaign they have been able not only to publicize their cause but also to affect institutional and national policy. Last week, for example, a White House task force issued a report on further steps universities could take to prevent sexual assault and help victims.

Administrative and policy changes are necessary but not sufficient to alter destructive behaviors that often defy understanding. What is at the root of sexual violence perpetrated by students against students? Is the problem long-standing or has it worsened in recent decades? What are the cultural forces leading so many young men to display misogynistic attitudes and exert power over women? What are the dynamics on campus that may be impeding healthy interpersonal relationships? We don’t have the answers. But one thing’s for sure: The uptick in student engagement is an encouraging sign that a behavioral shift is at least possible and that women are willing to fight for it. We hope more young men will become allies instead of enemies in this cause.