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Earlier this year, NPR's investigative unit teamed up with the Center for Public Integrity to show how universities fail women who were sexually assaulted. Now, government officials are taking action to hold schools more accountable. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Bob Dickinson speaks from the cozy coffee shop he started, just off the town square in downtown Hastings, Michigan, the place where he once worked alongside his daughter Laura, a college student.
Mr. BOB DICKINSON: She was an amazing employee. There was nothing she couldn't do or wouldn't do. She was working the machines and doing everything. She was funny. She had a great sense humor, a quick wit, and there wasn't a customer that didn't like her.
SHAPIRO: Laura was a 22-year-old student at Eastern Michigan University. Four years ago - next week is the anniversary - a university official called Bob Dickinson in this coffee shop with shattering news: His daughter was dead. But the official didn't tell the Dickinson family everything.
Mr. DICKINSON: That Laura was found in her dorm, that they led us to believe that there wasn't foul play. So we only assumed natural cause. We were just reaching for straws, something to put some kind of a final note to the whole thing why and how, and there's nothing. The pieces weren't falling together very well. We were just desperate.
SHAPIRO: More than two months later, university officials showed up at the coffee house, and that was the first time Dickinson learned the truth. His daughter had been raped and murdered by a stranger, another student who'd already been kicked out of the dorms for other break-ins. Since then, that man was found guilty of murder.
Eastern Michigan University paid the Dickinson family two-and-a-half million dollars in a legal settlement. And the school got the largest fine - $350,000 -in the history of these cases from the U.S. Department of Education. Now that federal agency has entered into an agreement with the university and another with Notre Dame College of Ohio, laying out additional steps the schools must take to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Ms. RUSSLYNN ALI (Assistant Secretary, Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education): Taken as a whole, these settlements will change the culture of the college campuses.
SHAPIRO: Russlynn Ali is the assistant secretary of education in charge of civil rights. Her office oversees how schools respond to sexual discrimination, including sexual violence. Early this year, after an investigation by NPR and the nonprofit journalism group the Center for Public Integrity, Ali said her office was ready to take tougher actions against universities that failed to protect students or adequately investigate sexual assaults.
Ms. ALI: Any other university or campus that is dealing similar issues, we hope these resolutions can be models. But we are in no way prescribing that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to curing issues of sexual violence.
Mr. DANIEL CARTER (Director, Public Policy, Security on Campus): The main challenge with the Office of Civil Rights approach is they're doing this one school at a time.
SHAPIRO: Daniel Carter is with Security on Campus, an advocacy group dedicated to ending campus violence. Carter helped develop a bill that was introduced last week in Congress. It would more clearly lay out the obligations of every school, to protect students and investigate assaults.
Congressman Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat, introduced the legislation. His district includes the University of Virginia, where, last spring, a student attacked and killed his ex-girlfriend.
Representative TOM PERRIELLO (Democrat, Virginia): A tragic situation with Yeardley Love brought a lot of people's attention to this rampant and systematic problem on our campuses. But we see it every day.
SHAPIRO: For Bob Dickinson, regulations and policies are a start.
Mr. DICKINSON: The federal government is - I mean, they can put out the acts and the laws and the requirements, but it's up to the universities to actually act on them and pursue them and follow them and make sure they're right.
SHAPIRO: The new legislation would also require schools to teach all students -men and women - how to spot and safely stop situations that could escalate into sexual assault, especially among students who have been drinking heavily.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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