White House and colleges grapple with sexual assault

Dan Gorenstein and Tony Wagner Sep 18, 2014

White House and colleges grapple with sexual assault

Dan Gorenstein and Tony Wagner Sep 18, 2014

If you’re in the business of higher education, the issue of sexual assault is on your radar.

The White House is expected to unveil a nationwide plan to address the issue Friday at the same time some 70 colleges and universities are under investigation for how they’ve handled sexual assault cases.

High-profile lawsuits are grabbing headlines and threatening reputations. As you may expect, all of this is getting the attention of college and university presidents and administrators. 

You don’t have to look any farther than the University of California at Berkeley — one of the schools being investigated — to see that sexual violence is becoming a top concern.

This fall, the school made its sexual violence training mandatory and all but several hundred students showed up. Spokesperson Claire Holmes says the clock is ticking for the no-shows.

“If they do not complete the training by Oct. 1, we will put a hold on their registration for the spring semester,” she says.

Schools around the nation have gotten the memo, says Terry Hartle, with the American Council on Education. It’s certainly in university and colleges’ long-term financial interest to toughen up their response to sexual assault, and Hartle says he’s seen a dramatic rise in student, faculty and security training.

“That is clearly the most obvious, immediate action,” he says. “It is also in many ways the easiest.”

Finding ways to investigate and resolve these cases is a more complicated and difficult matter, Hartle says. There’s pressure on colleges and universities to act because schools out of compliance with federal Title IX rules could lose funding for student aid.

Attorney Cari Simon, who represents victims of sexual assault, says there are businesses out there ready to offer quick fixes.

“We are seeing folks who call themselves trainers or experts who maybe haven’t been around all that long saying ‘Pay me this, and I’ll get you in compliance.’ But it’s really about checking the box and not getting at the heart of the issue and changing rape culture,” she says.

So, how will prospective students and their parents will know if a school is safe or not?

Diane Rosenfeld, who runs the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School, says people must be smart consumers and do some digging.

“See if there are dedicated resources to preventing campus sexual assault, look at statements the president has made [look at] whether the school has been sued or not,” she says.

Campus sexual assault by the numbers

One in five

The big statistic here, touted by the White House task force on campus sexual assault and many lawmakers: one in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college years. That figure becomes even more concerning the portion of victims who report their attacks to police — 12 percent — and the way those numbers were found.


That’s the number of respondents to the government’s Campus Sexual Assault Study, where the “one in five” figure comes from. The Justice Department distributed web surveys to two major public universities and based their results on the 5,446 respondents, according to a PolitiFact analysis. That very small sample size doesn’t invalidate the study’s findings — which were consistent with other, wider-reaching studies — but shows just how hidden and difficult to track these crimes are.


In July, the Washington Post analyzed sexual assault reports at four-year colleges and universities nationwide from 2010 to 2012. According to their data, 480 schools reported no forcible sex offenses in those three years. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill told the Post those schools are more concerning than schools with many reported assaults, and she questions if or how they are encouraging victims to come forward.

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