12/10/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Title IX Requires Schools Be Involved in Responding to Campus Sexual Assault -- and That's a Good Thing


The spotlight is finally on our national campus sexual assault epidemic, and we have an opportunity to achieve real progress in making campuses safer for all. But to do so, we have to stop dithering over why schools have a role in the response to sexual assault and focus instead on ensuring that schools make use of the tools available to become better actors. Schools' role in responding to campus sexual assault is essential, because students' civil rights -- an equal opportunity to education -- are on the line. Schools are uniquely situated to address this concern. I fear, however, that many do not understand that these civil rights concerns stand separate from any criminal proceedings that may or may not transpire.

Rampant sexual violence creates a campus climate that is hostile to students, especially women. When students aren't safe, they can't learn. Civil rights are violated, and schools are on the hook. That isn't just my opinion; the federal law known as Title IX prohibits such sex discrimination in all federally funded educational programs. The problem at hand is not whether schools have a role to play but rather that some schools are not meeting their requirements under Title IX -- rules that have been around for more than 40 years.

The law requires schools to have a role in addressing violence against women on campus because schools are best equipped to provide a critical piece of the response: accommodations. Accommodations such as class schedule or housing changes are necessary to survivors' ability to complete their education. Schools also must figure out, in an administrative setting, what occurred and then handle it according to their established student codes of conduct and anti-discrimination policies.

Let's be clear: None of these Title IX responsibilities mean that schools serve as police officers, prosecutors, or judges. Schools do not decide whether a felony or misdemeanor occurred for purposes of prosecution, and they cannot make plea agreements or impose criminal punishments. Those decisions are left to the appropriate local authorities in charge of criminal investigation and prosecution, if a survivor chooses to pursue that course. The school's civil rights investigation and law enforcement's criminal investigation represent parallel and equally necessary paths. And Title IX guidance emphasizes they can and should occur simultaneously.

But that doesn't mean we should mandate that all instances of sexual assault be automatically reported to the police. Although these incidents are atrocious and criminal, the criminal justice system is still woefully inadequate for many survivors. Some survivors do not want to go -- indeed, fear going -- to the police, and in many cases being forced to would prevent them from coming forward at all. We've seen instances of our criminal justice system urging survivors to come through their doors only to be revictimized and disbelieved or to find justice elusive, even though false reports are extremely rare. In fact, men are more likely to experience sexual assault themselves than be falsely accused of it. Campus sexual assault is seriously underreported by both women and men and grossly underprosecuted as well. Going against survivors' wishes only deters others from coming forward. Instead, rethinking how our criminal justice system responds to survivors will serve us best, making it worth the personal cost for survivors to report and helping communities develop services and systems to not only assist victims but also to aid prevention efforts.

We must also hold schools accountable. Title IX is not responsible for schools' mishandling of the horrific crimes happening on our campuses. The fact that more than 80 schools are now under investigation for Title IX violations related to sexual violence should -- rather than provoke critiques of the law -- illustrate how much we need resources for proactive Title IX technical assistance and training. Demanding transparency and providing additional support for results-oriented enforcement that both helps schools and holds them accountable will improve schools' response.

Title IX isn't a new kid on the block; what's new is the increased attention being put on campus sexual assault by students, advocates, the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and the media, combined with the increasing pressure on universities to face up to their responsibilities. This past year has pretty much been a national teach-in on the issue. Smart schools understand that Title IX, successfully implemented, is the very tool they need to improve campus climates for everyone. It's on all of us to keep the spotlight bright to help ensure that all schools follow the law and protect students' civil rights.