The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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The New Sexual Assault Response Rules for Colleges Require Them to Behave Like the Criminal Justice System. Here's Why That's a Problem.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosU.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, under CC BY-SA license. This week, new rules go into effect dictating how colleges and universities must respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus. The U.S. Department of Education released the final version of these rules in May, and since then, a number of lawsuits have been filed, some asking for more time to implement them. But as of now, the August 14 deadline still holds, and colleges are juggling the implementation of the new rules with planning for what is likely to be one of the most challenging semesters they have ever faced.

Among other things, colleges will be required to hold live disciplinary hearings during which those who have been sexually assaulted and those accused of assaulting them present live testimony and can be cross-examined. Though there are limits on this process – advisors to the students do the questioning, not the students themselves, and a hearing officer will decide if the questions are relevant – it creates an opportunity for more personal attacks than are seen in the criminal justice system, while pushing colleges to behave like that system. That’s not good for students.

One problem rarely mentioned in discussions of the new rules – which create a more litigious and adversarial process – is that the criminal justice system is rarely effective in achieving justice for victims of sexual assault. As a research scientist who has studied this issue extensively, I’m familiar with the many obstacles that victims face: Most don’t report sexual assault to authorities to begin with, and those who do face a secondary victimization as they must recount their experience over and over again to police, prosecutors, and other court officials. Challenges to victim credibility come on many fronts; those who have a history of emotional or mental health problems, who were assaulted by people they know, in situations that involved consumption of alcohol or drugs, or did not report it immediately tend to see their complaints discounted or the cases dropped before adjudication. (The exceptions are cases that involve serious physical injury or the use of a weapon.) This case attrition happens either because victims have been discouraged from cooperating further or because prosecutors do not see the case as credible, or think a jury will be unlikely to convict.

If colleges are required to adopt criminal justice-like procedures, many of these same factors that contribute to case attrition will have a chilling effect on reporting and help-seeking. Few complaints will move forward, and the safety of students and their access to an education will be further jeopardized. Many victims won’t want to pursue a process that involves repeating their account and personal details in a public hearing at the school where the assault occurred – especially if the person who assaulted them has more power or clout, like a star athlete – and answering questions proffered under the direction of that person. Many will decide, at some point along the way, it’s simply not worth it.

A criminal justice model also doesn’t make sense for colleges, whose mission is to educate, not adjudicate. Their goal is to foster norms against sexual violence and harassment, but they will end up being complicit in the re-victimization of those who report.

Along with colleagues and funded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, I recently completed a project on Responding to Sexual Assault on Campus. In the course of our research on 969 colleges across the US, we spoke to 47 Title IX coordinators, many of whom felt strongly that the way they handle sexual assault cases – including sanctioning – should be in part an educational process, in keeping with the mission of their institution to educate. Addressing complaints by holding hearings and cross-examinations doesn’t fit with that mission, and it’s also inconsistent with how colleges handle other violations of student conduct codes.

The Title IX coordinators we spoke to faced lots of challenges. The greatest challenge for many was building capacity to respond to reports of sexual assault. They voiced a critical need for more well-trained investigators, whether from within their college community, public safety, or external sources. The new rules (in some cases rules which conflict with their state laws and current policies) will require even more resources. Unless Title IX coordinators are provided with strong institutional support and visibility including adequate funding, staffing, and training – all of which will be a challenge at institutions wrestling with responses to COVID-19 – they will have to try to do more with their already meager resources. This isn’t a recipe for thoughtfully carried out processes that result in justice for students.

We’ll learn more over the coming months about the issues that will arise from these new rules. For example, how will the complex interplay of state laws, Federal Circuit court rulings, guidance from lawsuits, and institutional mandates affect the implementation? What effect will the pandemic have? There will be details to iron out, but the movement of Title IX processes toward a criminal justice model is a step in the wrong direction. It is also the biggest threat to ensuring that women are given equal access to education.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on the justice system response to sexual violence. In 2020, she concluded a federally-funded study of college responses to sexual assaults on campus.

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Now More Than Ever, Title IX Coordinators Need Greater Institutional Support

Dhanya NageswaranSage Carson was raped by a graduate student in her sophomore year of college. In an article for VICE in 2018, she recounts the grave trauma she endured as a result. Unable to transfer schools and experiencing a steady decline in her GPA, Carson was on the verge of dropping out. Who played the biggest role in helping her graduate? Her Title IX coordinator, who connected her with free counseling, helped her get extensions on her school work and issued a no-contact order between her and her rapist.

The rights of students laid out by the Title IX Education Amendments Act of 1972 remain a contentious topic in American higher education, as one in four women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault during their college career. In 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos first announced her intention to overhaul the guidance on Title IX policies issued by President Barack Obama, which she described as "skewed against the accused." After reviewing the whopping 124,000 comments on the proposed Title IX guidelines posted in late 2018, the Department of Education released its new guidelines and policies on May 6, 2020.

The content of the regulations themselves is controversial, but no matter how the rules have changed, the individuals responsible for ensuring compliance with Title IX — Title IX coordinators — still strive to do their challenging jobs. Title IX coordinators are responsible for implementing rules that prohibit gender-based discrimination and harassment, and they coordinate the investigation of all Title IX matters, including sexual assaults. Depending on the college or university, they may conduct the investigation themselves or rely on others within their institution or outside it.

Following a wave of student-led activism in the early 2010s and Title IX guidelines newly issued by the Office of Civil Rights in 2011 and 2014, many campuses reviewed and modified their procedures for responding to complaints of sexual assault of college students. But to this day, Title IX coordinators work to end sexual assault on campus while grappling with the sometimes conflicting goals of institutional efficiency and legal compliance. It is argued by some that unnecessary bureaucratic procedures may interfere with the ability of Title IX coordinators to achieve justice that is both fair and prompt. Moreover, some Title IX coordinators are hampered by efforts to protect their college or university from negative publicity.

Recent reports indicate that two-thirds of Title IX coordinators have held their positions for less than three years — many for less than one year. The research I have worked on with Senior Research Scientist Linda Williams, Ph.D., at the Wellesley Centers for Women supports this assessment of the high turnover of Title IX coordinators and, more importantly, that many of them are not getting the support they need. Programs designed to prevent sexual assault have been significantly underfunded across the country, and we found in the course of our research that Title IX coordinators view support from institutional leadership as critical to their success. Such support includes resources, the visibility of the office, and an approach that legitimizes the importance of Title IX activities (reporting, investigation, and adjudication, as well as prevention) as part of an institutional commitment to respond to campus sexual assault.

For many, serving as a Title IX coordinator provides a great deal of satisfaction. They see the work of educating students about sexual assault as meaningful and essential. But implementation of Title IX requirements is a heavy burden, particularly if Title IX coordinators are not sufficiently supported by their institutions. Without that support, ending sexual assault on college campuses — in the midst of a pandemic, and with new regulations to follow — is an extremely difficult goal to achieve.

As institutions work to implement these new guidelines, equipping their Title IX coordinators with more resources is in the best interest of the safety of all campus communities. Now is the time when strong support by institutional leaders is critical to guarantee that no one is excluded from education because of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and that the ultimate goal of ending sexual assault on campus is achieved.

Dhanya Nageswaran is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2021 who is double majoring in Economics and Political Science. At the Wellesley Centers for Women, she was awarded the Linda Coyne Lloyd Student Research Internship for the 2019-2020 academic year, which supported her work with Dr. Linda Williams on the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault on college campuses.

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Stop Pretending Sexual Assault Can't Happen in Your School

This commentary by Nan Stein and Bruce Taylor was originally published by Education Week on October 4, 2018.

Christine Blasey FordThe sexual assault allegations leveled by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have consumed the country. The events as described by Ford are not an anomaly for U.S. teens. As researchers, we know that there is a high prevalence of sexual assault among teens today and that schools are not implementing effective strategies to address this kind of violence. But the data haven't always been available—it is only in about the last two decades that we can reliably measure the prevalence of sexual assault among teens.

We are researchers, not psychologists—one of us (Bruce Taylor) is a criminologist, the other (Nan Stein) is a former middle school teacher who focuses on curriculum development and teacher training. With the support of grant funding from the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, we have spent the last 10 years conducting research on school-based interventions that has taken us into middle schools in the Cleveland suburbs and New York City. Using rigorous scientific data, we have created interventions designed to prevent the kinds of behaviors Christine Blasey Ford described in her testimony—and they have been shown to be effective. Our 2010 study, "Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School," was one of two evidence-based community-level primary prevention strategies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified in 2014 as effective at reducing sexual violence.

The general public's opinion of sexual violence is largely shaped by high-profile crimes they encounter in the news. In 1989, three high school football players from Glen Ridge, N.J., sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped girl. For years, these boys had been throwing wild drunken parties. Yet, they never got in trouble until there was a rape—their conviction came four years later. In 2012, there was another incident that garnered a lot of attention. In Steubenville, Ohio, the rape of a drunken female teenager by two drunken high school football players at a party gripped the nation; the boys were later convicted of sexual assault. The incident was recorded by some of the partygoers, and images were posted on social media.

Sexual assault, including the incidents above, can have a devastating impact on its victims. Although it can take years or decades for victims to begin to address the trauma and come forward to report the incidents (as we are currently witnessing), the rumors and whispers may begin the following day at school, in the hallways, and over lunch—even when some of the participants were too drunk to remember anything. The underreporting of sexual violence has been documented by researchers extensively. According to a 2017 report from the Justice Department, only 23 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police.

In the early 1980s, when Ford alleges her assault occurred, there weren't many surveys of teenagers focused on either perpetration or victimization of sexual violence by their peers. For example, one of the nation's largest youth surveys conducted by the CDC did not start measuring sexual violence until 1999. Perhaps officials doubted that sexual violence among teens happened, or they assumed it was only perpetrated by strangers carrying a weapon who jumped out of a dark alley. It certainly could not have happened among privileged white kids, perpetrated by good white boys who attended private schools where the dress codes require jackets and ties.

Today, we find ourselves swimming in statistics from an abundance of surveys measuring sexual violence among youths. Based on the CDC's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 10 percent of high school students were sexually assaulted in 2017, with females (15 percent) experiencing higher rates than males (4.3 percent). This was in line with another national survey: An analysis of 2003, 2008, and 2011 National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence survey data of 15- to 17-year-olds found that between 12 and 18 percent of girls and about 3 percent of boys were victims of sexual assault.

When it comes to dating, the rates of sexual assault are even higher. In the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence conducted in 2013-2014 for dating youth 12-18 years old, funded by a grant from the Justice Department, the researchers found a sexual assault rate of 17.8 percent for girls and 17.3 percent for boys. The high rate of sexual assault among teens is of particular concern because our research has found that it is often a precursor to intimate partner violence.

There are at least three steps that schools can take to address sexual violence among teens.

1. Implement evidence-based effective interventions. In addition to the approach we laid out in "Shifting Boundaries"—which combines classroom lessons with schoolwide interventions addressing sexual harassment as a precursor to teen dating violence for middle school youths—other programs have been recognized for their efficacy, including Safe Dates (a school-based teen dating-violence prevention program for 8th and 9th graders); Coaching Boys into Men (a program where high school athletic coaches promote respectful behavior among their players to prevent sexual assault); and Bystander Intervention (an approach where bystanders are trained to interrupt potentially harmful situations).

2. Implement schoolwide interventions—not merely classroom lessons. The key components of our evidence-based Shifting Boundaries intervention include working with students to map safe and unsafe areas of the school so that staff can make necessary modifications to prevent violence, creating quasi "stay away" or restraining orders to protect victims, and saturating the school's hallways with messages and posters on safe teen relationships.

3. Conduct staff training. All faculty members and staff should understand the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault among teens and how to implement evidence-based strategies.

You might think that school districts would welcome these interventions. However, as researchers, we have experienced resistance, particularly from high-performing, privileged schools when attempting to introduce prevention programs. Despite scientific survey data demonstrating the pervasiveness of sexual violence among teens, some school districts apparently still believe "sexual violence can't happen here." What other evidence do they need to start taking this problem seriously? It is time for K-12 schools—private and public—to begin to implement evidence-based strategies designed to address sexual assault.

NanSteinBruceTaylorPhotosNan Stein, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she conducts research on sexual harassment and gender violence in schools. Bruce Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in public health at NORC at the University of Chicago, where he studies the etiology of violence and evaluates violence prevention programs.

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"The Hunting Ground”—Ground zero for changing social norms on sexual assault?

This week we recognize the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Indeed, gender-based violence impacts women across the globe. Rape in conflict zones or of refugees or of child brides are all horrific and this day makes it clear that violence against women is still a pressing problem—and this includes sexual violence on college campuses.

Today we applaud the courageous women who created, produced, and spoke out in the film “The Hunting Ground.” This movie makes it clear that although sexual assault on campus occurs in the ivied halls of elite U.S. institutions (as well as in the big 10, in religiously affiliated, secular or community colleges) it is not simply one of those #firstworld problems which we must apologize for worrying about in the face of all the tragedies in the world.

“The Hunting Ground” demonstrates the extent to which sexual assault on campus represents not only the evil one person commits against another but also places the harms of campus rape within the context of the institutions. When an institution does not take steps to end sexual violence then they can be seen as providing institutional support for rape and rape culture. While, of course, not all schools fail in this way, many do and the work of the organizers of www.endrapeoncampus.org has brought this to the attention of us all.

The sexual assault of college students—of women and some men—is a denial of access to education. If permitted to continue it relegates women to a marginal status and basically is a way of telling women to “go home.” It gives this message to some women: “If you can't take what is being handed out then you can give your seat at this university to someone who can—to a male” (the male you took it from when women decided they should be able to seek an education so they could become lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, writers, political scientists--- be women who will make a difference in the world.) Carol Tracy (executive director of the Women’s Law Project, who was honored by the American Society of Criminology just last week for her fight for justice) called the women of “The Hunting Ground” courageous and amazing. Last week Carol helped me to recognize and, yes, maybe even believe, that this film and more importantly the work of these women is the ground zero for a cataclysmic change in how we respond to rape and a path to changing social norms about rape. Certainly this is a turning point in the lengthy battle to stop sexual violence and to end rape. As such, the impact will hopefully go far beyond campuses and the U.S. It is a strong message to victims and survivors throughout the country and throughout the world that they are not alone.

Since Carol and I started working in this field in the early 1970s there has been much change. Many steps forward. In the 1970s there was almost no recognition of the seriousness of the problem of rape for women and men of our land (well except for the brutal legacy of the way black men suspected of rape of white women were treated—an important part of our history we need to return to on another day because I suspect it plays a role in the conflict around men women and rape in the U.S. today.) In the early 1970s Carol was involved in a sit-in against rape that occurred at a fraternity and I was involved in research that led to the discovery that rape was much more likely to take place at the hands of someone known to the victim than to involve a stranger.

Since the 1970s we demonstrated the importance of evidence and rape kits (and then some folks “forgot” to test them) and rape crisis centers were started and researchers began to pay attention to this crime and to victimization. Laws were changed and victims were supported in the process… But in many ways it had begun to feel like we had hit a wall on the progress needed to end rape, to find justice for the survivors and to eliminate violence against women. The film, “The Hunting Ground” and the courageous and ground breaking work of Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark and all the survivors who have made their voices heard make me think—change will come ... A new wave is breaking. “The Hunting Ground” is ground zero for changing norms around sexual assault and eliminating this form of violence against women.

Linda Williams, Ph.D. is co-director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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