The horrifying statistics on rape and sexual assault on college campuses in this country speak for themselves. Studies show that about one in five undergraduate women has experienced such an attack or an attempted attack at some point during their college years, but only 12 percent of incidents are reported.
Why is justice so difficult to find in what is supposed to be a protected and enlightened atmosphere of a college or university? Advocates say there are numerous institutional barriers that discourage reporting, including administrators who treat reports of sexual assault with disbelief and on-campus judicial systems that are difficult for a victim to navigate.
That's why President Barack Obama's announcement this week that he is seeking to ensure that schools do more is a step in the right direction. The guidelines he offered — based on the recommendations of a White House task force convened earlier this year — represent some common sense reforms like requiring schools to conduct anonymous surveys of students and making sure that on-campus counselors can talk to victims in confidence.
Whether these reforms will prove adequate remains to be seen, however. This is hardly a new issue. Concerns about sexual assault and sexual discrimination in higher education generally, date back to at least 1972 when federal Title IX laws were approved. The rape and murder of 19-year-old Jeanne Clery at LeHigh University in 1986 led to federal reforms five years later. As recently as last year, President Obama signed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act which was meant to update the 1991 Clery law and help rape victims find support on campus.
Yet the first-hand reports from students who have been assaulted and discouraged from seeking justice — or of mismanaged investigations that fail to protect the victim's identity or lead to any punishment for the perpetrator — are rampant. At prestigious Amherst College, two former students filed federal complaints last fall against the school where they say administrators trivialized attacks that took place against them. Similar lawsuits have been filed over incidents at Vanderbilt University, Yale University, Dartmouth College and University of North Carolina.
One reason why the response so far has been inadequate is likely that schools appear more interested in shielding themselves from potential litigation than in protecting students. In recent years, colleges have spent tens of millions of dollars hiring lawyers and consultants to help them comply with federal law without necessarily having much impact on the campus culture.
Nor does it help that there is still much stigma and misinformation surrounding sexual assault victims. Some assume that assaults or the result of "misunderstandings," but research shows most — are planned by the perpetrators in advance. The impact on victims is devastating: 80 percent suffer chronic physical or psychological problems, according to an American Medical Association study.
The case of Jameis Winston, the Florida State star quarterback who was accused of raping a fellow student in 2012, offers a cautionary tale. She reported her story to Tallahassee police the same day it happened, yet police dawdled in their investigation and took nearly a year to present information to local prosecutors, losing key evidence — including a video of the alleged act — along the way. The result? No charges were filed, and the accuser left school.
And last month, a former U.S. Naval Academy football player was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a midshipman at an off-campus party in Annapolis. The acquittal raised serious doubts about the prosecution of sexual assaults in the nation's military and the case helped fuel reforms approved by Congress.
When is enough going to be enough? While it's possible that a troubled student might file a false claim of sexual assault against a classmate, experts say that's hardly commonplace. Rape is a serious crime, and schools ought to treat it seriously. That the Obama administration felt compelled to create a web site (NotAlone.gov) to track statistics and embarrass schools into action ought to be an embarrassment to higher education all by itself.
Education and prevention programs are helpful but more is needed. Schools must also offer greater support to victims and actively prosecute perpetrators. And those who bungle sexual assault investigations ought to be identified and dealt with appropriately. Schools that fail to meet these minimum standards ought to lose federal funding through programs like the Pell grants, a rarely invoked Title IX authority. It's clear that colleges haven't learned their lesson about rapes on campus and patience for their collective dilly-dallying within the White House, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere ought to be running thin.