What Can Obama Actually Do to Solve Campus Sexual Assault?

Courtesy Alexandra Brodsky

Last week, student activists against sexual assault got some exciting news: The president announced that he was forming a task force to tackle the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses. “An estimated one in five women is sexually assaulted in college, and that’s totally unacceptable,” Obama said in his weekly address. “We’re going to do help schools do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual assault on their campuses, because college should be a place where young people feel secure and confident.” Obama gave the task force ninety days to come up with an “action plan” for combating campus rape.

In conjunction with Obama’s announcement, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report full of grim statistics. Only 12 percent of college sexual assault survivors report their rape to law enforcement officials. Alcohol plays a major role, with perpetrators preying on incapacitated students or plying their victims with drugs or alcohol. A small number of assailants account for the vast majority of campus rapes; one study showed that of the 7 percent of college men who admitted to committing rape or attempted rape, 63 percent of these men owned up to multiple offenses, averaging a total of six rapes each. These numbers upend the notion that campus rape is, for the most part, a misunderstanding between two intoxicated students. If a student is found guilty of sexual assault, there’s a good chance he’s done it before—or will do it again.

Sexual assault continues unchecked because of a widespread culture of impunity. Students who are sexually assaulted are sometimes discouraged from filing complaints and told to take time off if they want to avoid their assailant. Meanwhile, when perpetrators go through school discipline processes, they generally emerge with a slap on the wrist.

When she was an undergraduate at Yale, Alexandra Brodsky discovered that not only was this an unethical system, it’s illegal. Under Title IX, a civil rights law that most people associate with women’s sports, universities that receive federal funding are required to give their students an education free of discrimination on the basis of sex. That includes sexual harassment and assault.

Few students are aware of these protections, forty years after they became law, so Brodsky helped launch a national online campaign called Know Your IX, which helps students understand their rights under Title IX. The movement gives students the tools to file a complaint with the Department of Education. But the Department of Education is notoriously slow and opaque about its responses to these complaints. More often than not, rather than sanctioning schools, the department will extract a promise not to do it again.

The Prospect talked with Brodsky about what the White House task force can do, what it should do, and why it’s key to bring in students at every step of the process.

Your activism clearly influenced the White House’s decision to highlight sexual assault on college campuses. Are you optimistic about this move?

What the creation of this task force says is that the administration is listening to the needs and demands of student survivors. So often our experiences are trivialized by professors, classmates, school administrators, the Department of Education. To have the president stand up and say, “This is a problem and I have your back,” is huge. The task force itself could be an incredible meeting of White House heavy hitters talking about a serious national problem and coming up with real solutions.

But I’m also wary. Survivors are so used to seeing powerful administrators put together committees in response to student concerns. A classic school response to a Title IX complaint is, Oh, we put together a task force. We’re hoping that this isn’t just the big-kid version of that. It would be hugely disappointing if the federal government’s response to our protests mirrors what universities have done—making superficial changes to calm down angry students.

What should the task force prioritize?

This is a huge cultural problem and we don’t expect one task force to solve it overnight. But there’s some seriously low-hanging fruit. First, they should give Title IX enforcement some teeth by outlining penalties that won’t hurt students. Right now, as the Department of Education understands it, their only option if there are Title IX violations is to deny all federal funding [to the school]. That would obviously be tragic for students; it would have an especially bad impact on low-income students who depend on financial aid. We need intermediate fines, an unambiguous statement that the school screwed up, and an incentive not to do it again.

Secondly, the investigations need to be speedy and transparent. And third, the Department of Education needs to continue to issue guidance for dealing with a diversity of survivors, not just the stereotype, which is a pretty, white, straight girl who was raped by a man she’d never met.

Do you know who’s going to be on the task force? Will there be student representatives?

The task force will only be members of the administration, so students won’t be driving the proceedings. It makes me worry that however well-meaning the participants are, they’ll be making recommendations from their own conceptions or misconceptions of campus violence. There will be some truth to that, but it often homogenizes. That single narrative doesn’t allow for the variety of experience to come through.

They’ve got a short time frame here, too. Ninety days is usually how long it takes for the Department of Education to respond to your email. So it’s great to see them moving so quickly, but it’s also important for the task force to do some serious listening before they start drafting.

Transparency seems to be a big issue here. Are the transparency issues with the schools, or the government, or both?

The real transparency issues are with the Department of Education. It’s incredibly hard to get information about Title IX investigations. One of my friends’ investigations took four years. The department won’t release a list of schools that are under investigation now or have been investigated. You talk to survivors who went through this arduous, time-consuming complaint process to find out that their school was already under investigation and nobody had any idea.

Right now, it seems like a lot of the burden is on the survivors—to file complaints, talk about their stories, bring this issue into the public eye. Will this task force help take some of the burden off their shoulders?

During our meetings with the Department of Education, one of their excuses for not being more transparent was, “Well, you’re already publicizing the problem.” But that’s not our job. Our job is to be students, to learn. It’s not to monitor our schools’ compliance with civil rights law and enforce that law when our government won’t. Right now, public shame is the main motivation for schools to do anything about this problem. That public shame depends on survivors coming forward. Some don’t want the media attention, or they can’t get it. So if you’re a survivor and you can’t find the platform to get the information out there, your school is getting off scot-free. That’s why it’s so important for this task force to make some real demands from the Department of Education.

Schools aren’t transparent about their sexual assault statistics either. Should those numbers be public?

I don’t know how helpful statistics are for figuring out whether a school is safe. Right after the Yale Title IX complaint, the number of reported assaults went up pretty dramatically. But I don’t think that was because suddenly more people were being raped—it was because people suddenly realized that their school was supposed to be doing something about this. We just saw a similar thing at Penn State. A higher rate could mean, in the short term, that a school is making a concerted effort to get more students to come forward, and that’s exactly what we want—we don’t want to discourage it.

I can imagine a more holistic way of evaluating the schools: asking whether they have a program to teach students about consent or surveying the students to see if they know what they would do if they were assaulted, or their friend was assaulted. That, to me, would be a more meaningful number.

Part of the problem, too, seems to be schools’ internal judicial systems for handling these cases. They can be complicated and intimidating for survivors. What can the Department of Education ask colleges to do, in order to streamline these processes?

One of my expectations is that we’ll see some best practices come out from this task force. A lot of schools are not putting in the effort needed, but some other schools just aren’t quite sure what to do. For example, a really important change is for these procedures to be university-wide rather than school-specific. It used to be at Yale that if you were a med student raped by a law student, nobody had any idea where you reported the assault, because both schools had different procedures for dealing with the issue.

Are there any universities that are models in taking meaningful steps toward lessening sexual violence?

Pretty much every time an article comes out saying that a particular school’s doing a good job handling campus sexual violence, a survivor comes forward and says, “Nope!” Cornell recently was commended on the Huffington Post for proactively seeking policy change around a complaint. But then a bunch of students responded and said, actually, we’ve all been protesting so don’t pretend that the school’s doing this on their own. But of course, we’d love it if schools got ahead of this. The goal is not for every student across the country to file a Title IX complaint, the goal is for them not to have to do that because the school is following the law. That’s how the law is supposed to work, right? 

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