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Administration, Congress Take Steps To Address Sexual Assaults On Campus

Joseph Shapiro is a correspondent with NPR's Investigative Unit. He reported NPR's series last winter, "Seeking Justice for Campus Rapes."

There are signs that government is taking on the problem of campus sexual assault with a new seriousness. The United States Department of Education is announcing "voluntary resolution agreements" with two schools that had been criticized for the way they'd handled assaults. And new legislation in Congress would expand and clarify the responsibility of colleges and universities.

Sexual violence is a common and persistent problem on the nation's college campuses. A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one out of five college women will be sexually assaulted. Usually there's alcohol involved. Last winter, NPR's Investigative Unit teamed up with journalists at the Center for Public Integrity to look at the failure of schools, and the government agency that oversees them, to resolve these cases. (The NPR investigation was called "Seeking Justice For Campus Rapes.")

At the time, in response to the series, the federal official who oversees how schools respond to sexual discrimination, including sexual violence, said her office was ready to take more aggressive action against schools. So recently, to follow up, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education, called in NPR and the Center for Public Integrity to discuss her latest steps. These include:

—Entering into agreements with Eastern Michigan University and Notre Dame College of Ohio. The documents lay out an array of steps the schools must take to prevent sexual assault and to effectively investigate assaults when they do happen. The agreements also call for Ali's department to send officials to those campuses on a regular basis to make sure progress is being made.

The cases that prompted a focus on these schools includes a December 2006 incident involving 22-year-old Laura Dickinson, who was raped and murdered by a stranger — another student — who broke into her dorm room at Eastern Michigan University. The man, Orange Taylor III, who was later convicted of the young woman's murder, had already been arrested for break-ins on campus, and had been kicked out of the school's dorms, although he was allowed to remain a student. Campus officials let Dickinson's family believe that she'd died of natural causes and didn't tell them the truth until 10 weeks later, when its investigation was completed and Taylor was arrested.

Schools have an obligation, under a federal law, the Clery Act, to promptly warn other students of crimes on campus and an obligation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to take prompt and effective action to end or prevent sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape.

In October of 2005, two students at Notre Dame of Ohio, near Cleveland, told the dean of students that they'd been sexually assaulted. But it wasn't until weeks later that the assaults were reported to police. The dean said she'd been asked by the women to keep the information confidential. It turned out that the same man was involved. The dean, Patricia O'Toole, was indicted but later acquitted of failing to quickly notify law enforcement authorities. The case was seen as one that put obligations to respect student privacy against those to report crimes.

The Department of Education's Ali is an Obama Administration appointee. But both investigations were begun in the closing days of the Bush administration. Administrators at both schools said they already changed practices at their schools and that they wanted to do more to protect the safety of their students.

—Announcing that Ali's department had begun two similar investigations at Ohio State University and of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, in Richmond, California. That investigation was prompted by an alleged gang rape of a 15-year-old girl in that northern California city after she attended a homecoming dance at Richmond High School.

—Ali also said she had "proactively" called officials at the University of Notre Dame to offer them any help they needed investigating a recent rape allegation there. Ali said her office responded after seeing media reports last month of a student, Elizabeth Seeberg, who committed suicide after alleging a Notre Dame football player had assaulted her. Ali said the offer and discussions with the university in South Bend, Indiana, were continuing.

In addition, a bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, last week, introduced legislation that would expand and more clearly spell out what colleges and universities are expected to do to prevent sexual assaults and then how to respond when an allegation is made. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE Act) was introduced on December 1 by Rep. Thomas Perriello (D-VA) and Rep. John Duncan (R-TN).

The bill would require that anytime a student reports being a victim of sexual violence — including stalking and date or domestic violence — schools are then required to explain, in writing, their rights to notify law enforcement and receive help from the school to report the incident. Schools must also tell students their rights to obtain a protective order from a local court. And the school is then obligated to help enforce those protective orders. Schools would be required to hold prevention campaigns, to help students avoid sexual violence and to know how to report it and get counseling if they become a victim.

S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus, an advocacy group for ending campus violence, helped develop the bill. He says the law is needed because the federal government has not done enough to lay out the specific needs of universities. And settlements, like the two just announced by Ali, are too specific and hard to find to provide guidance to other schools, he says.

"Without a clear national framework set in statute and regulation, it's still going through one school at a time," he says. "And not making these changes across the board, which is what we really need to do if you're going to change the big picture."

Perriello, who was defeated in his bid for re-election last month, represents the University of Virginia, where last spring a student attacked and killed his ex-girlfriend. Pierrello told NPR, "The tragic situation of Yeardley Love brought a lot of people's attention to this rampant and systematic problem on our campuses, but we see it every day."

The bill would also require schools to start teaching what's considered one of the best approaches to prevention: something called "bystander education". The idea is to teach everyone — men and women — that they can prevent sexual assaults, and that they have a responsibility to do so. It's similar to campaigns to stop drunk driving by spotting a friend who's had too much to drink and hiding his car keys, giving him a ride or calling a taxi.

Earlier this year, a social marketing campaign at the University of New Hampshire tried to teach students to step in when they see a situation that could lead to sexual assault, especially in situations where there's been a lot of drinking. Every bus on campus and every bathroom stall had a poster of such a scenario and a tag line: "Friends watch out for one another — especially when there's alcohol involved."

When he introduced his bill, Perriello cited the NPR and CPI investigative series for "exposing many of the gaps the Campus SaVE Act will help to fill."

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