05/31/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

College Sexual Assault Policies Come Under Scrutiny As Students File Complaints

This article, written by investigative journalism students at the University of Massachusetts, is presented as part of a larger series addressing issues related to sexual assault on college campuses.

Colleges nationwide took notice when a federal complaint was filed against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill alleging lax enforcement of Title IX regulations and a failure to adjudicate sexual violence on campus. That, together with a high-profile op-ed by Angie Epifano claiming similar failures at Amherst College, has brought the issue of sexual assaults to the forefront of the collegiate world over the past academic year.

College administrators are required to abide by regulations set forth in the Clery Act and Title IX when dealing with cases of reported rape. The Clery Act requires an annual and accurate report of all crimes on college campuses. Title IX, an anti-discrimination law, has become associated with college athletics, but applies to the college as a whole.

It wasn't until April 2011's "Dear Colleague" letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that many began to see Title IX as a regulation dealing directly with sexual assault. The letter from the OCR directed schools to "take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence" and outlined specific obligations administrators have under Title IX in that regard.

"The survivor who is neglected and not given the proper support, resources, or housing changes often drops out," said former UNC Assistant Dean of Students Melinda Manning, who resigned from her position after assisting students in filing their Title IX complaint. "But the survivor who is supported very often completes their education and thrives."

Manning believes the "Dear Colleague" letter was one of two tipping points that spurred the sexual assault awareness movement on college campuses. She dubbed Epifano's op-ed as the other cornerstone in the current movement. And now several new initiatives are beginning to gain traction.


Many sexual assault prevention programs focus solely on teaching students how to avoid risky situations. Bystander education, by contrast, insists that such situations can be avoided completely when a witness intervenes.

The main goal of the University of New Hampshire's "Bringing in the Bystander" effort is to emphasize that preventing sexual assault isn't the responsibility of the victims, but oftentimes of the bystanders.

"I wouldn't hesitate to help someone who was in a sketchy situation or someone who was being assaulted," said UNH senior Emily McCauley.

UNH's initiative influenced Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan's bystander campaign, which is meant to teach consent and "the difference between sex and rape." The video campaign, which primarily features University of Massachusetts-Amherst students as actors, focuses on situations in which a student can intervene in potentially dangerous interactions.

"The old myth with sexual assault and rape education was that a person needed to be prepared to fend off a stranger who would attack them," Sullivan said. "The truth is that most sexual assaults involve an acquaintance or friend. The male captain of the basketball team who tells his teammate he is not treating women with respect is going to be much more effective than some stranger lecturing the same offender about relationships."

Enku Gelaye, UMass' dean of students, expects to incorporate the bystander campaign into the university's student orientation soon.


Duke University is one of a few educational institutions that has instituted a mandatory reporting policy.

"We became convinced that if we were serious about intervention and prevention, we had to make a bold statement that sexual misconduct could not be kept secret," said Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs at Duke and co-chair of the university's Gender Violence Task Force.

Adopted about two years ago, the mandatory reporting policy at Duke states that if anyone within the campus community confides in another about a sexual assault, the employee, staff or faculty member may not treat the conversation as confidential. So even if the victim of sexual assault does not wish to report his or her case, the employee cannot promise confidentiality.

While the employee may refer the student to a counselor, the case must also be reported to the administration. From there, the employee, staff or faculty member must, as a matter of policy, alert the Duke administration or campus police and submit the information to a website. That information is then sent to the Office of Student Conduct, which decides on the appropriate action to take.

Reports of sexual assault at Duke increased from 20 to 30 to more than 100 in the first year, according to Moneta, and to more than 200 in the second year. While not all of the incidents reported had occurred in the previous year, the numbers are significant.

But Manning questions whether mandatory reporting will prevent students from taking the important first step to confide in a trusted staff or faculty member.

"The question with mandatory reporting is: What do you do with that information?" Manning asked.


But they didn't say no.

This statement is often used against survivors who claim to have been sexually assaulted, and can misguide the decisions of the college hearing boards that weigh crimes of sexual violence.

“Without a policy that accurately and precisely defines sexual misconduct, grievance boards are left to their own prejudices to decide cases,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a graduate of Yale University.

Brodsky, along with 15 Yale students and alumni, sparked a 15-month investigation by the Education Department when they filed a complaint in March 2011 claiming the Ivy League school failed to make necessary changes in policies to correct a sexually adverse campus climate. The university responded to the complaints while working with OCR to reestablish the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct in July 2012; the university also hired a new Title IX coordinator.

In the wake of the Yale investigation, Harvard University announced it had no future plans to alter or change its policies, much to the chagrin of some concerned students and staff.

A group called "Our Harvard Can Do Better" formed with the aim of "dismantling rape culture at Harvard." One of its first efforts was to get Harvard to change its current policy from the negative consent policy to one of affirmative consent, i.e., changing "no means no" to "yes means yes."

Although more reforms may be needed, Manning said she is stunned by how much has happened at universities in the past few months.

"The great thing is we are starting to reach the more general public that wouldn't necessarily look at these issues," Manning said. "I think we're starting to reach others."