24 Feb 2015

Thoughts on Addressing Sexual Violence on College Campuses

0 Comment

By Jill Pilgrim, Esq. & Rita Smith

Our recent work on a campus climate assessment on sexual violence got us thinking and exchanging viewpoints about current approaches to prevention and addressing sexual violence on college campuses. The unique eco-system in which most college campuses exist, makes addressing sexual violence in this environment challenging. In addition to local custom, campus culture, local laws, uniquely tailored school rules and regulations, university administrators also have to contend with an octopus-like entanglement of numerous federal laws, all of which must be complied with. The simple question is: whether compliance and elimination of the risk of campus sexual assault are both possible and/or desirable objectives?

While sexual assault is at one extreme end of the spectrum, it is important to note that stalking and sexual harassment are included in the collective behaviors falling under the umbrella term domestic violence. This term is not usually associated with higher education campus settings, so perhaps the term “partner abuse” should gain currency to donate the full scope of concern related to college coeds.

Law & Policy

Under Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972[1], a university receiving federal funding is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex, which includes sexual violence, in its educational programs. The Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights (OCR) subsequently issued the Dear Colleague Letter providing guidance to universities on their duties under Title IX related to sexual violence. The Dear Colleague Letter emphasizes an educational institution’s obligations to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence. It goes on to explain what actions are considered compliant with the immediate and effective steps standard.

Among the obligations mandated by OCR to combat sexual violence, schools must implement a mechanism, usually in the form of an investigation and grievance procedures, for addressing incidents of sexual violence that is prompt, thorough and impartial. Inherently, this investigative and due process mechanism affects the due process rights of the parties involved[2] – the accuser, the accused and the staff and agents of the educational institution. Notice, education and training comprise significant elements of the Dear Colleague Letter guidance.

Implementation & the Educational Eco-System

The oft-quoted “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is an obvious starting point for addressing sexual violence and partner abuse in a campus environment, until one seriously contemplates the fluid and porous nature of many college campuses. Add to this challenge, the difficulty of capturing the attention of the Millennial, social media focused, hyper involved, always on the go and stressed student of today and one can appreciate the gargantuan task of seeking to keep students safe from themselves, outsiders and fellow students. The difficulty of the task will not win the sympathy of a sexual assault victim, his or her parents, and the community at large when a sexual violence incident occurs. For this reason, and because educational institutions do care for the students under their charge, it is time to acknowledge that the status quo is not acceptable and that common sense and impactful education, training and prevention measures are necessary without delay.

Framework for Addressing Sexual Violence on College Campuses

Acknowledging and accepting the seriousness of the challenge to safeguard the interest – physical, emotional, educational and legal – of all those impacted by sexual violence and partner abuse in an educational setting, requires some fundamental bench-marking and prioritizing. Ideally, prevention and education programs should be focused on young men and women and the educational staff and faculty who interact with them on a daily basis. Educational institutions might look backwards to move forward in addressing this sexual assault against students, and implement mandatory “Life Skills” classes that encompass significant components dealing with intimate and domestic relationships.

Basic components of the “Life Skills” classes should include definitions of sexual assault, domestic violence, partner abuse and stalking. Also included should be guidelines on the difference between healthy and unhealthy “dating”[3] relationships, applicable state laws relating to chargeable sexual offenses, and the nearest locations for counseling and assistance, for both potential victims and perpetrators. As a significant number of college sexual assaults involve alcohol and drugs, guidance on substance abuse is critical in this series. As a matter of best practices and effective outcomes, the Life Skills sessions should be provided and mandated for all students each academic year through graduation, to ensure the best chance of changing the student culture surrounding sexual assault and partner abuse.

In this era of litigiousness, the legal aspects of sexual violence on campus cannot be ignored and must be addressed from a 360-degree perspective. The Dear Colleague Letter makes clear that educational institutions have obligations to students that are separate and apart from the criminal legal process. Therefore, the school’s investigation and procedures must be fair and even-handed towards both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator, and should be conducted by investigators trained on the complexity of sexual assault and domestic violence. Support programs are needed for both young men and women, not just after they have become victims (or think they have), but also to change the culture surrounding youthful sexual exploration in the fast-paced, social-media, technologically perilous era that is the 21st Century.


Given that conflict is likely to continue to exist between effective, common-sense approaches to reducing or eliminating sexual violence on campuses and available resources, versus legal and policy frameworks geared towards responding to social pressure and political expediency, who should the college student seek to hold accountable for his or her safety while pursuing a higher education? Whatever you believe the correct answer is, where do you go for a comprehensive and experienced guidance on this sensitive subject? Our team at Precise Advisory Group is eager to explore best practices as well as tailored solutions to address sexual violence in your eco-system, whether it be educational or athletic. Please contact Rita Smith or Jill Pilgrim for more information and assistance.

[1] 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq.

[2] http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.pdf

[3] Dating is likely an outdated term as many young people today “hook-up”.

About the Author