What to do about campus sexual assault? It seems like no one agrees.

'There is wisdom in giving general direction to colleges'

Policymakers, advocates, and institutions have different views about how to handle sexual assault on college campuses, Sara Lipka reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is dealing with a growing backlog of Title IX complaints. With less than six months before the end of the current presidential administration, it is unclear how these investigations are going to be addressed. A new administration or a federal judge could change how complaints are dealt with, and current mechanisms are also subject to criticism. 

In the past several years, activist groups such as Know Your IX have challenged the Education Department to more strictly enforce Title IX laws at colleges and universities. Lobbying efforts have led to increased awareness of sexual assault on college campuses, as well as renewed efforts to investigate complaints. The OCR received just 16 complaints of alleged sexual violence against colleges in the 2012 fiscal year, but that number had grown to 164 by 2015.

While student and alumni activists are pleased that colleges are facing more accountability, they want more changes within higher education. Alyssa Peterson, a policy and advocacy coordinator for Know Your IX, says that activists continue to push for deeper systemic changes and more protection for survivors of sexual assault—two goals that have yet to come to fruition.

Three critical steps to improve sexual misconduct reporting

Meanwhile, some lawmakers have criticized Title IX enforcement as federal overreach. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) fought with OCR Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon over the office's guidance issued to colleges regarding sexual assault on campus. Former students at Colorado State University–Pueblo and the University of Virginia School of Law have also sued OCR.

Lhamon argues that criticism is expected with greater transparency, although the recent guidance aligns with processes that OCR has always had in place.

However, "There are some really fundamental questions of constitutional law and statutory authority and regulatory authority on the table," says Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.

A new federal law could also change regulatory authority in college sexual assault cases. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act calls for increased sexual assault prevention and response measures on college campuses. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers introduced the bill in Congress in February, and it could return in early 2017.

Proposed law would change the way colleges are required to respond to sexual assault

As a new administration enters office, the question of federal enforcement will continue to be a critical issue for colleges and universities.

"Reform is a good idea, but there are elements of it that are a stampede," says Gary Pavela, retired director of student judicial programs at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"There is wisdom in giving general direction to colleges," he says. "That would be much more productive over the long run" (Lipka, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/31).


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