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It’s back-to-school time. Parents are preparing to send their daughters and sons to college, some for their first year away from home. Amid the domestic discussions about laptops and refrigerators, many are thinking about the recent attention on campus sexual assault.
Banner headlines in major newspapers and magazines. Horrifying stories with graphic details. Stepped-up enforcement by the Departments of Education and Justice, White House, and last month, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate designed to hold colleges accountable with additional requirements, hefty penalties and increased public scrutiny. Even “Doonesbury” has recently jumped into the fray.
There’s no one easy solution to this problem, but accessible resources and support from the college and active engagement by students are crucial to the effort.
What has changed, parents wonder, since they were in college in the 1980s and 1990s? What is behind all this? Are our young people really more violent and foolhardy than we were at their ages? Has the “hook-up culture,” along with easy access to large quantities of alcohol and drugs, made this situation inevitable?
From my vantage point as a longtime university lawyer who has worked on many sexual misconduct cases, including the leading Massachusetts university sexual misconduct lawsuit in the 1990s, the answer is no. In fact, I believe that young adults are, in many ways, more sophisticated than we were. But here are some myths that need to be debunked.
Myth 1. Colleges and universities are not paying attention to this problem.
Most college and university presidents, senior staff and legal counsel are taking these concerns extremely seriously. Trustees are educating themselves and asking questions. Higher education associations are offering numerous Title IX sessions. Job postings for Title IX coordinators are up all over the country. Guidance from the White House and the Department of Education is scrutinized carefully. Vendors of Title IX services are scrambling with ample new business.
Myth 2. Entitlement among young men on college campuses runs high, especially among athletes.
Research has suggested that most men on college campuses who commit violent offenses are a small minority of repeat offenders. However, the current wave of outrage appears to be directed at all men, particularly male college athletes, as if they are latent criminals who believe that the mere presence of a victim means consent. This is simply not true and never was. Demonizing young men is not a solution to this problem.
Myth 3. Colleges and universities should simply turn all of these cases over to the police.
Under Title IX, that isn’t possible. It is the victim’s decision whether or not to talk to the police. If he or she decides not to, or does so, but the local prosecutor won’t pursue the matter, the college must continue to do its best to protect the victim.
So what can concerned parents do? The Senate bill would require campuses to perform annual student surveys to assess their sexual assault climate, but parents can also ask a few questions before their children go off to school. New students should be encouraged to make themselves familiar with the college’s resources for victims of sexual assault. They should look up the rules about consent in the college’s disciplinary code, including the ability of a person who is impaired by alcohol or drugs to give consent to sexual activity. These resources should be easy to find and to understand.
New students should be encouraged to make themselves familiar with the college’s resources for victims of sexual assault.
Returning students should be asked: do they feel safe on campus? How about at off-campus parties where there might be alcohol or drugs? Have they talked with their friends about bystander prevention programs, which empower students to help each other in situations that could potentially lead to sexual assault?
In my view, the best way to prevent sexual assault on campus is to encourage intelligent awareness by both male and female students of their surroundings, their circumstances and their campus rules. There’s no one easy solution to this problem, but accessible resources and support from the college and active engagement by students are crucial to the effort.
The media and the government may have turned a light onto sexual violence on campus, but effective prevention can only happen one student at a time. If that student is your own child, ask the questions. He or she may thank you for it.
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