College campuses should be safe zones for learning, exchanging ideas and interacting with intellectually driven, curious and engaged peers. Tragically, in the United States, this isn’t the case. One in five women can expect a sexual assault during her time in college, and as if that wasn’t enough, her case is likely to be severely mishandled by her college or university. Women have been hounded out of school, ignored by law enforcement and caught in lawsuits of their own when they resort to naming their rapists as they demand justice.
The U.S. educational system is in the grips of a rape crisis that only seems to be expanding, with new discoveries about the dynamics of college sexual assault making the picture worse by the week. Recently, a study showed that 9 of ten rapes on college campuses involved repeat offenders, often known to the college or university administration. Due to the bizarre and labyrinthine system of justice on college campuses paired with a reluctance to believe rape victims for fear of adding a rape to a college’s safety statistics, assailants may remain on campus despite their activities.
Now, a group of students at the University of Connecticut is calling on their administration to face the music and explain why their university hasn’t handled rape cases well, to the tune of unspecified damages for emotional suffering and a court order to force the university to mend its ways. UConn has an inadequate system in place for handling sexual assaults, which has exposed students to danger, including danger from multiple rapists who haven’t been expelled or put through any kind of campus judiciary proceedings.
The four women involved in the suit are basing their complaints upon Title IX, a landmark piece of legislation designed to address discrimination in education. They’re arguing that the mishandling of their rapes constituted a hostile environment as they experienced a form of dual victimization due to the fact that they were raped and then mistreated by the University when they filed complaints and attempted to seek justice.
It’s probable that UConn will attempt to settle the matter out of court to avoid a public suit and subsequent headlines, but the students have already made their point, and will likely continue to do so. Already, Connecticut’s legislature is holding a meeting to discuss a crackdown on sexual assault at college campuses, reflecting a growing national understanding that colleges and universities are ill-equipped, and perhaps unwilling, when it comes to addressing the issue.
Fighting rape on college campuses obviously requires much more than a single legislature or a single lawsuit could ever do. One important area of action is within the Department of Education, which has the power to cite and fine institutions that it feels are failing students. It could be issuing more aggressive warnings and fines for campuses with a serious rape problem or documented issues when it comes to handling rape cases. Such a move could spur colleges to independently form task forces to discuss ways to more effectively, safely and respectfully handle sexual assault cases and the safety of students.
Such programs need to include comprehensive rape prevention programs as well as protocols for handling accusations. Prevention at college campuses is often mistakenly focused on women, unfortunately, when it would be much more effective aimed at men, with discussions about consent, autonomy and sexual responsibility. Meanwhile, a commitment to taking accusations seriously and respecting the fact that they are not like other misconduct reports is critical to ensure that women have a safe space to come forward with reports and concerns.
Photo credit: industrial arts.