Sexual Assault Summit Opens With Questions For Federal Officials

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College administrators from around the country are meeting in New Hampshire this week to review how schools respond to sexual assaults on campus.

They’re looking for more guidance to make sure they don’t become targets of an expanding U.S. Department of Education probe.

Withholding Funding 

In all 64 schools are represented at this conference being held at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth’s president, Philip Hanlon, says he wanted to host the conference so that his college, and others, can figure out how to control sexual assault on campus.

“Dartmouth is hosting the summit as a way to gather and mobilize colleges and universities to address together an issue that we all grapple with as individual campuses,” he said.

Other university administrators attending the conference say they are feeling the heat from the federal government to do more to address sexual assault on campus. The U.S. Department of Education has informed more than 60 schools it’s investigating their sexual assault policies and has threatened to cut off their federal funding.

So, college administrators had lots of questions for two federal officials who hold a lot of power over colleges and universities.

If Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon finds that a college is not protecting its students from sexual assault, she can withhold that college's funding.

College administrators were hungry for guidance about how to go about creating what amount to parallel criminal justice systems within their schools in order to comply with federal law. Lhamon said they don't have to.

“Educational institutions are not criminal justice systems,” she said. “They are educational institutions, and the role of the university in investigation and, as you call it, adjudication is to make sure that all students on campus are safe. That's a fundamental part of educating students.”

Facing Reality

But the reality is that when a student brings a complaint of sexual assault, the college must investigate that complaint in a way that's fair to both the victim and the assailant.

Anurima Bhargava, chief of the Education Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, took on this quandary as well. She can sue a college if she finds it's not protecting its students from sexual assault.

“We're not asking educational institutions to engage in a criminal investigation, a criminal proceeding,” she said. “There are methods for that to happen.”

But one person in the audience pointed out that as a sexual assault counselor at one college, she has personally brought many students to the local police to press charges and in no case has the local district attorney ever pressed charges. So with the failure of prosecutors to bring charges, many colleges and universities find themselves being the only ones who offer justice to victims of sexual assault.

This week, those who run 64 of those colleges and universities hope to begin to learn from each other what works best to prevent sexual assault in the first place and how to deal with the assailants.

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This segment aired on July 15, 2014.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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