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Ariela M. Migdal Headshot

Take Back Our Campuses

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and students across the country are protesting sexual assault on campus by holding Take Back the Night rallies. Recent months have seen the revival of the old debate over whether sexual assault on campus is a reality or, as one commentator put it, a phony epidemic. This rehashing of outdated attacks on the prevalence of campus sexual assault has distracted from a much-needed discussion of the hostile environment that rape victims and their supporters face on many campuses, both before and after the assaults, especially when the accused are popular campus athletes.

Take the case of two female students who reported that they were assaulted in 2001 by a group of football players and recruits at University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). The women's accounts of the rapes and the evidence that some of the recruits had been promised sex as a perk of their recruitment visit to CU were horrific enough. What added insult to injury was the vitriol that the women and their supporters faced when they spoke up about the crimes. One victim told reporters she was ostracized on campus and received death threats after she sued the university over her rape. She later withdrew from CU. Another female student, who helped organize a rally in support of sexual assault victims, reported receiving a rape threat and said that the activists and victims were accused of trying to bring down the football team. And, perhaps worst of all, a co-chair of the university's independent investigative panel publicly questioned "why" the "young ladies... are going to parties like this and drinking or taking drugs or putting themselves in a very threatening or serious position."

This culture of victim-blaming does not arise in a vacuum. Colleges and universities set the stage when they glorify their male athletes above all else, discourage victims from coming forward, and refuse to impose effective discipline on athletes who engage in sexual violence. A CU student who was engaged in peer education about sexual harassment was told by the administration that her organization could not present to the campus athletes because "they are not your peers." Nor is CU's behavior unique among colleges and universities. In 2003, a few weeks after an Arizona State University football player was kicked out for egregious harassment and intimidation of women on campus, athletics administrators arranged to have him re-admitted with virtually no supervision, presumably so that they could keep him on the team. According to a complaint filed in federal court, the player subsequently raped a student in her dorm room. The ACLU recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the woman's lawsuit against ASU, arguing that, under Title IX, universities are responsible for assaults committed by their students when the universities are aware that harassment is occurring and deliberately ignore it, sending the message that further harassment will be tolerated.

In another recent case, a federal appeals court [PDF] found that the University of Georgia had engaged in similar misconduct when it moved mountains to get a basketball player admitted to the school on a full scholarship through a "special admissions policy," even though senior UGA administrators and coaches knew that the player had been kicked out of two other schools for sexual assault and harassment. The basketball player - along with two other athletes - subsequently gang-raped a female student, according to the lawsuit.

In the CU case, the federal appeals court found (PDF) that the school itself had fostered an environment in which visiting recruits believed they were entitled to sex from CU women as part of the "good time" the school promised to show them. The court found that CU had repeatedly turned a blind eye to well-documented problems of sexual harassment and assault by its student athletes and that this kind of "deliberate indifference" by a university's higher-ups sets the stage for more assaults.

The courts in the CU and UGA cases got it right. Responsibility for setting limits on students' behavior starts with the universities. Change can and should come from the top. The CU case ended with a comprehensive settlement that not only compensated the victims, but, perhaps more importantly, changed the way that CU deals with sexual violence. As a condition of the settlement, the school appointed Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic athlete and Title IX expert, to a five-year post to independently oversee the school's response to reports of sexual harassment and assault. The school also hired a new in-house rape prevention coordinator for five years, and it adopted strict rules for its football recruiting program.

Other universities should not wait for costly lawsuits before changing institutional cultures of tolerating sexual violence and intimidating victims. Instead, schools should take proactive steps to guard against sexual assault on campus and to prevent backlash against victims who muster the courage to come forward. Schools should train personnel, including athletic department staff, not to silence victims who speak out. They should instruct athletes and other students about the consequences of sexual harassment and assault. And they should engage independent Title IX advisors to counteract the hostility that victims can encounter. Only when universities accept responsibility for creating a safe environment will there truly be gender equity on college campuses.

To learn more about the ongoing fight against this and other forms of gender-based discrimination, check out the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.