In 2010, an Amherst College student was a victim of an attempted sexual assault on campus. Two years later, she was raped by a member of a fraternity. She never reported either attack. Suffering from depression, she spoke with a school counselor and disclosed the rape, after the perpetrator had graduated. There was no investigation into the attack, but the young woman was referred to a college psychiatrist. The first and only meeting occurred on November 15, 2012. During the meeting, the psychiatrist repeatedly inquired into her desire to commit suicide even though the woman repeatedly denied being suicidal.
By the end of the meeting the woman was put in an ambulance against her will and taken to a local hospital.
This incident is part of a federal complaint filed last week against Massachusetts’ college, alleging that the school inadequately handled sexual assault reports and created a hostile sexual environment. The anonymous woman was one of two former students filing the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education using a law better known for athletic programs and STEM – Title IX.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits gender discrimination in any education program or activity that receives federal funding in whole or in part. It is most often cited as the reason girls’ athletic programs were established in schools, colleges and universities. However, Title IX applies to numerous activities, including admissions, recruitment, housing, employment and student services and treatments. If the school receives federal funds, it must provide equal access to all programs and activities.
This includes handling of sexual assaults.
While the statute did not specify what activities were covered, guidelines from the Department of Education, supported by Supreme Court rulings, have made Title IX applicable in a wide variety of instances. Sexual violence is one such instance because “the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” The Department of Education has created specific guidelines outlining the obligations colleges and universities have when it comes to campus sexual violence. This means:
1) The school must respond promptly and effectively and take immediate action to stop the harassment or violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.
2) Even if the student or student’s parent(s) do not make a formal complaint, the school must investigate and take appropriate action.
3) If a criminal investigation occurs, the school is not relieved of its obligations to address the situation.
The school’s responsibility begins long before an incident occurs. It must have programs in place to prevent sexual harassment and violence, as well as a process to handle complaints. This includes having and distributing their policy against sex discrimination, having a Title IX coordinator and making known the procedures to file complaints. It also prevents retaliation against any student that exercises their rights to do so.
At the same time of the filing of the Amherst College complaint, six current and former Vanderbilt University students filed complaints against the Nashville, Tennessee university for their mishandling of sexual assault reports. Both are part of a coordinated effort by the Know Your IX campaign to educate students nationwide of their rights to combat campus sexual violence. Launched in August of this year by sexual assault survivors, they provide information and guidance for filing complaints against universities, as well as encourage activism to make sure schools are in compliance with the regulations.
These complaints also include allegations of Clery Act violations. Signed in 1990, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act requires schools to report all on campus crimes and to include these incidences in an Annual Security Report, which is normally available on the school’s website. It also includes a Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights, which requires disclosures similar to those under Title IX. The act was named after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986.
Even when a criminal complaint is filed (something many victims are afraid to do), justice is not guaranteed and civil suits can be long and expensive. Title IX and Clery Act complaints are often the most accessible ways for victims to force universities to respect victims’ rights. Complaints are handled by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The OCR can assist in forcing compliance with the regulations, including making the university take actions against the perpetrators. Noncompliance can be cause for a school to lose its federal funding.
The second student in the Amherst complaint, Angie Epifano, wrote an op-ed in October 2012 to the school’s newspaper about her rape and the school’s response, which included her being carted off in an ambulance to the psychiatric ward of the hospital. It set off a campus wide firestorm and forced the university to address the issues. The university president acknowledged it had failed her and had already begun addressing how they handled sexual assaults. That was more than a year ago.
In the complaint filed last week, Epifano wrote that when she returned to Amherst in August 2013, the new students were not aware of the sexual violence on campus and that the residence halls had no information posted for victims.
We’ll have to wait and see if the federal complaint will bring about any real change.