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Campus Sexual Assault Survivors Pushing Harder for Awareness

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For Laura Dunn, this hasn't exactly been a winter of discontent.

Awareness continues to grow about the scourge of sexual violence on college campuses. More assault survivors are supporting each other to break the silence and challenge their universities' mishandling of complaints. Reports of rape given to institutions have risen dramatically -- by 34 percent between 2010-2012.

A new White House task force to prevent school assaults appears to have put the issue squarely on the front burner. And last week, a bipartisan group in Congress urged the Department of Education to meet a key demand by one of the growing numbers of student groups -- creating a public database that lists the government's enforcement actions and agreements reached with universities.

Media attention to what some call an epidemic -- hidden at times by low reporting rates, and contorted by stubborn norms about topics such as what informed consent means -- is helping to bring change.

Clarity rather than subterfuge. Accountability rather than denial. Transparency. Prevention.

Yet for some student activists and other advocates, it's nowhere near spring in any sense.

Dunn broke her silence eight years ago about being raped as a college freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She never received justice, as the university took nine months before deciding not to pursue disciplinary charges against an accused athlete.

Dunn feels some validation with last month's White House announcement of a task force to fast-forward recommendations to end campus assaults. Ditto with regulations currently being written for Campus SaVE (Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act), a new law that spells out what universities must do when students report claims, and also the breadth of proactive efforts they should already have in place -- including primary prevention and education programs, and modeling strategies for bystander intervention.

Currently a third-year law student who expects to work in victims' rights, Laura is optimistic. Yet only so much.

"There's no final result yet," she said recently. "I'm still in this mode of push for more. This isn't a victory, this is the time to fight hardest.*

What some call an epidemic of campus sexual violence rages on, as an estimated one in five women have been sexually assaulted while in college. Still, only 12 percent of assault victims report complaints to law enforcement, the White House said in an accompanying report to its task force," Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action."

Using the education department's data, the rise in reported rapes on campuses, nearby public property and off-campuses climbed to 4,850 incidents in 2012. "I think the increase can be paid to the collective attention paid to sexual violence by advocates, the Department of Education, the media and everybody," said S. Daniel Carter, of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a campus safety group started by the families of victims and survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. "It's a confluence of factors."

These growing reports may reflect that colleges are doing a better job offering students resources and building trust in how assault complaints are handled. "With all the attention around campus sexual assault I hope numbers will rise," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a leading campus safety nonprofit. As a parent herself, Kiss offers that she would be more likely to send her daughter to a college where reported incidents are rising -- rather than a school with few or no reports -- if that reflects more awareness and commitment to address the problem within the campus community.

"I've talked to parents who say, 'I never thought about it before,' and students who say, 'I'm not alone now, and I'm going to do something,'" she said.

Dunn and other activists remain vigilant. One student group she is involved with, ED Act Now, continues to press education authorities for tougher enforcement when universities fail students after harassment and assaults occur.

According to the National Institute of Justice, nearly two-thirds of universities still "shirk their legal responsibilities to address sexual violence," 39 members of Congress told the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on January 29.

ED Act Now members claimed victory when the White House task force embraced four demands it made last year to education officials. Among those is having federal agencies collaborate to sanction failing schools more effectively. ED Act Now is pressing on in an apparent dialogue with the Obama Administration.

The group seeks more enforcement teeth to back up complaints filed under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender-equity discrimination. In the past few years, young women who say they were re-victimized and betrayed by their colleges' mishandling of reports, often through the schools' grievance proceedings, have brought flurries of Title IX complaints in high-profile cases filed against schools like Yale, UNC, UConn and many others. Recently, some men accused of assaults who believe grievance hearings were unfair to them have made complaints as well.

Activists are calling for a quicker investigation of Title IX cases, noting some have taken as long as seven years to resolve -- as colleges run out the clock. They'd also like the Department of Education to take a lead from students to issue yearly guidance to colleges on issues that have impacted campuses the most, from LBGTQ violence, to dating violence and stalking.

Dunn, who also formed SurvJustice, a nonprofit providing advocacy and legal aid to victims, also believes education officials, sometimes in concert with the Department of Justice, should bring fines against against schools to set an example. Education authorities typically reach compliance agreements with universities, with some officials contending these are the most effective way to improve student protections. The DOE does not typically fine schools in these Title IX cases. Critics counter these resolutions often merely paper over unfulfilled promises.

The Education Department's civil rights office (OCR) has long had the ability to terminate federal student aid in worst case violations, but has never done so. Dunn and others are pushing for intermediate sanctions, recognizing that cutting student aid would harm working class and students of color the most. "If it happens once with authority, if it takes down a very strong institution, that just gets the message across very clearly," said Dunn.

Other students continue to dig in. Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale graduate who helped bring a Title IX complaint against the university in 2011, says she is both hopeful and wary. In an interview last week in The American Prospect , Brodsky said creating task forces and other official declarations of good intentions only go so far. "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."

Brodsky, who is on Ed Act Now's organizing committee, also helped launch a national online campaign, Know Your IX, which helps students understand their rights under Title IX.

Others, like Andrea Pino, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, criticize their school for taking face-saving measures before actually improving resources and policies for assault survivors. Pino is one of several students who filed a Title IX complaint against UNC a year ago. Recently the university hired a new Title IX staff, including a public communication specialist, and reported progress with its own task force.

"If your job is to look good, maybe you should try to fix the problem internally," Pino recently told The Daily Tar Heel.

Kiss, of the Clery Center, frequently trains campus police and administrators about the Clery Act and Title IX compliance. She believes a key step will be education authorities issuing clearer recommendations to schools. She disagrees with some students that strict penalties are the answer, saying, "I think most institutions learn from program reviews... From my viewpoint the effort is there."

"In order to be proactive," Kiss offers, "They need more guidance from OCR first. In all fairness, before enforcing something you need guidance. Or it's issuing a speeding ticket before the sign is posted."

Ultimately, Dunn understands firsthand what it can cost students to come forward -- not only against their accused attackers, but then against their schools. Her ordeal in Wisconsin and the subsequent complaint she filed against the university with the Department of Education was first chronicled in an investigative series by the Center for Public Integrity, and by National Public Radio.

The frequent framing of assault complaints as a "he said/she said" matter remains a stubborn norm, she said, similar to societal attitudes around what constitutes consensual sex, and the toxic mix of heavy drinking and sexual predators.

"It takes a piece out of a student," Dunn said. "No one will look at you the same once you file a complaint of sexual violence. More often people are being looked at like heroes and not villains, but that is not across the board."

Ken Brack is a nonfiction author whose forthcoming book, The Ten-Year Quilt, chronicles the legacy of Jeanne Clery and activists dedicated to ending sexual violence on campuses.