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How Reporters Are Covering Campus Sexual Assault Scrutiny

Image of University of Virginia, one of the higher education institutions under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for possible Title IX violations.

 Source: gargola87 on Flickr

Higher education reporters have produced some first-rate stories in the past few days on a complex and critical topic: Title IX and campus sexual assault. 

Late last week the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of the federal Title IX regulations, which include how sexual assaults are to be investigated. The New York Times put the story by Richard Perez-Pena and Kate Taylor on the front page (and above the fold). 

The story describes campus climates where young women who report sexual assaults are subjected to inappropriate questioning by campus authorities, are provided little or no emotional support or services, and in some cases are denied due process:

“It just hasn’t been on most university administrators’ agendas; they don’t know how to approach it, and they just haven’t taken the time to be informed,” said Bonnie S. Fisher, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice and an author of some of the largest studies of campus sex crimes. “It’s just another issue on their desks that they’re hoping doesn’t cause a loss of students or bad media attention.”

Inside Higher Ed pointed out that publishing the list of 55 open compliance reviews was an “unprecedented step” by the feds. Some of the campuses on the list have ongoing Title IX investigations dating back three or four years. Others are schools that have not been previously identified as under federal scrutiny. From Michael Stratford’s reporting: 

“We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant education secretary for civil rights, said in a written statement. “We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue.”

The list is not the result of a random sampling to determine compliance, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt has said. The feds used data from news reports, statistics, and information gathered from parents and advocacy groups to determine where to focus its review, Nolt told The Huffington Post

That the University of Colorado Denver is under investigation for possible Title IX violations apparently came as a surprise to campus officials, the Huffington Post reported. The university said in a statement that the federal action was not triggered by a complaint but instead is “a general review of our Title IX compliance.” 

By comparison the University of Colorado Boulder, one of the other four Rocky Mountain State campuses on the feds’ list, was prepared to be singled out. From the Denver Post: 

Bronson Hilliard, assistant vice chancellor for media relations at CU Boulder, said the school announced last summer that it was the subject of an investigation. Since then, it hired an outside firm to review its policies and procedures. One recommendation was to hire a full time Title IX officer, and the school is in the process of hiring that person now, he said.

“We were not surprised to be on this list,” Hilliard said. “We take the issue very seriously. We want to be a national leader in ending sexual assault on campus.”

The Boston Globe noted that over the past 18 months many victims of sexual assault have been going public telling their own stories — often in campus publications — in an effort to force higher education officials to confront inadequacies in existing policies and raise awareness of an issue that for too long has been relegated to the shadows. A coalition of sexual assault survivors also raised funds to launch the Know Your Title IX website, which provides resources, support and guidance to students. 

Over the past three years the feds have put the spotlight on campus sexual assault and higher education institutions that fail to appropriately investigate and respond to allegations of sexual assault. 

Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel with the Victim Rights Center in Boston, told the Globe she’s seeing a difference. Colby told the Boston Globe that “her law center went from a 98 percent failure rate five years ago in getting satisfactory resolutions from the colleges for their clients to a 60 percent success rate after the administration’s initial 2011 crackdown.”  The center, which represents about 40 to 50 campus assault victims annually, has since seen its success rate climb to 90 percent, the Globe’s Marcella Bombardieri reported.

In the wake of several high-profile cases and a growing chorus of public concern, President Obama created a federal task force to dig into the issue of campus sexual assault. The task force issued its first report last week — titled “Not Alone” — with recommended new guidelines. Among them: Campuses should survey students to gauge attitudes, awareness, and incident rates related to sexual violence. That survey could become mandatory in a couple of years. 

If you’re an education reporter working on a related story, take a look at our Topics Page on sexual assault and Title IX.  You’ll find key coverage, the latest reports, and even five questions to ask



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