There is growing evidence that incidents of sexual assault on college campuses are under-reported and not always vigorously investigated or prosecuted. Recent efforts in Washington to compel colleges to address the problem are appropriate, although there are important questions as to whether they will be able to achieve the necessary results.
A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate would require colleges to conduct surveys on the frequency of assault and publish the findings or face serious financial penalties. The measure follows the release this year of a study by the White House Council on Women and Girls that indicates one in five women has been assaulted while attending college.
The number is shocking, and it clearly demonstrates the problem is big enough to earn top priority among colleges as well as law enforcement agencies. The Senate bill would create a public database of campus assault that would be a valuable starting point for assessing the particulars of the problem, but the bill does not provide funding or other mechanisms to guarantee that necessary investigative and prosecutorial efforts can be stepped up.
Simply requiring schools to survey and report on incidents of assault won’t prevent future assaults. Only aggressive investigative efforts will have that effect. But the federal agency primarily responsible for handling complaints of how educational institutions deal with sexual violence lacks the staff and funding levels to aggressively address the issue.
The federal Office of Civil Rights lacks a permanent staff position assigned to handle complaints of sexual violence under federal Title IX statutes. The office has half the staff it had in 1980 when it received far fewer complaints, according to the office of Sen. Karen Gillibrand, D-New York, a sponsor of the bill. Even so, the office is currently investigating no fewer than 55 colleges for how they have handled sex assaults.
Separate from the Senate bill, President Obama has created a task force in response to his council’s report and given it 90 days to report back on the best practices to attack the problem. It would be surprising if the task force does not address the issue of proper funding for enforcement programs — something the Senate legislation ignores.
As it sits, the Senate bill’s chief focus seems to be shaming colleges into dealing with the problem. The degree to which schools attach priority to the issue may vary from campus to campus, but suggesting schools are calloused or even willfully negligent when it comes to sexual assault is not fair.
In Utah, the problem is certainly a matter of heightened concern. As one example, Utah State University has been recognized by federal officials for efforts in spreading awareness and making resources available for concerned students.
Sexual violence, particularly against young women, is a problem of greater prevalence than society has perhaps been willing to acknowledge. It’s important that colleges and other institutions are required to be alert to the problem; it’s more important that resources are in place to guarantee that every instance of sexual violence is discovered, investigated and prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law.