Most cases of sexual assault or harassment on school campuses don’t attract national attention.
But a few do. There was the backlash over Notre Dame’s response to the suicide of a 19-year-old a few days after telling campus police she had been sexually assaulted. And there was a video of blindfolded fraternity pledges outside Yale University’s Women’s Center that was cited in the settlement of a complaint that the university had failed to eliminate sexual discrimination on campus as required by federal law.
“What’s always unfortunate, though … is the reaction comes after,” says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women.
Her organization and others have pushed for better training and prevention efforts on university campuses, along with more reliable follow-up to reports of problems.
On Thursday, these advocate were heartened by the House of Representatives’ reauthorizaton of the Violence Against Women Act, which addresses many of their concerns.
The problems on campuses are widespread. A federally funded survey published in 2007 found that nearly 1 in 5 women in college experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault.
A joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 found campus responses to reports of assault wanting, discouraging women from filing complaints or following up on them.
That’s happening despite the federal Clery Act that requires collection and reporting of campus crime statistics.
The legislation that passed the House Thursday includes a section about violence on campuses. It would codify guidelines issued by the Obama administration in 2011 to address sexual assault, Maatz says.
The law passed Thursday also expands reporting on domestic violence, dating violence and stalking on campus. Existing reporting mandates only cover sexual assaults.
When the Clery Act was first passed more than 20 years ago, the goal was to raise awareness about crime, says Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
And Kiss says “classic education” about sexual assault focuses on how individuals can reduce their risk of getting attacked, like having a safety plan and staying in larger groups.
But she she says cultural change is needed. People need to be encouraged to speak openly about what’s happening and to report problems.
Kiss says there has been progress. “In the beginning it was hard to get campuses to admit that crimes happened,” she says. Now campuses are asking what they can do.
Still, Maatz says, “There are still those that have their head in the sand.” She says the Violence Against Women Act will provide a framework for schools that don’t have initiatives in place.