Dartmouth Sexual Assault Summit Calls for Action

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Hanover — Federal officials on Tuesday called for colleges to meet a higher standard in combating sexual violence during sessions of the National Summit on Sexual Assault hosted by Dartmouth College.

“If we get this right at this moment in time we will have a cohort of students who leave school knowing that sexual assault is unacceptable,” Lynn Rosenthal, the White House advisor on violence against women, said.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, created in January to inform President Obama’s initiative against rape on college campuses, released its first report in April. Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson, who will leave Dartmouth for Scripps College in August, was in Washington for the release of the report. On Tuesday, Rosenthal summarized some of its findings, including the recommendation that institutions of higher education strengthen their prevention resources.

“What we still see is that we haven’t yet prevented that first act of violence from happening,” Rosenthal said.

Bea Hanson, of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, said that bystander initiatives, or programs that teach members of the community how to identify dangerous situations and intervene in them, were one option.

Another important strategy would be to engage men, she said. Up until recently, 98 percent of the people who attended university events against sexual assault were women, except a few men whose girlfriends dragged them along, Hanson joked.

But the first step for any organization should be to identify the scope of the problem, Rosenthal said, which meant conducting regular and effective campus climate surveys.

“I know it’s scary,” Rosenthal said, “But without that information, it’s hard to craft a program to address (sexual assault).”

A question and answer session followed the officials’ prepared remarks.

Twice, responses from Rosenthal drew frustrated laughter from the audience, both times related to questions about the federal government’s enforcement of its standards through the Clery Act and Title IX. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities to regularly report crime statistics and to warn students and employees of crimes on campus that endanger them, while Title IX mandates that institutions protect their members from sexual harassment and violence. While the laws have different requirements, they do not conflict with each other, Rosenthal said.

But some administrators disagree.

“There needs to be more clarity about what is expected under Clery and the different reporting requirements for Clery and for Title IX ,” Dartmouth Federal Compliance Coordinator Heather Lindkvist said, referencing the difficulty in balancing a victim’s need for confidentiality with the mandate to report crimes to protect the larger community. “That was part of what the audience response was.”

Lindkvist, whose work with Dartmouth begins in August, stressed that her comments were not necessarily reflective of the state of affairs at the college.

But Rosenthal said that universities would have to weigh their options and act, regardless. In some situations, such as when administrators receive multiple complaints about the same offender, or when perpetrators are using illicit substances to facilitate rape, confidentiality could be overridden, she said.

“Confidentiality should never be used as a shield by schools for inaction,” she said.

The problem wasn’t confined to higher education, she added, because studies have found that one in nine teenage girls has been a victim of sexual assault.

Victoria Nevel, a Dartmouth student who helped organize the conference, said she was pleased with the college’s response to sexual violence, but wished it would collaborate more with WISE, an Upper Valley support service for female victims of domestic and sexual violence.

She also wished that student groups could do more than make recommendations to college administration.

“They (the students) don’t have any real power in the decision-making processes,” she said.

But Dartmouth had already implemented many of the strategies mentioned on Tuesday, Nevel said, including a bystander initiative that the college had announced in July 2013, as well as many student-led programs. Among them, Movement Against Violence sends peer educators into fraternities in an attempt to change campus perceptions of sexual assault.

“I think Dartmouth is trying. It really is,” Nevel said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.