Challenge of college rape persists, despite directive

Campus sexual assault protest
A sign and small flags dot the University of Oregon campus as part of a campaign to raise awareness of sexual assault on college campuses in this 2010 photo. The sign reads, "One out of four women will be assaulted on a college campus...We need to stop sexual violence from happening in the first place."
Photo by Wolfram Burner via Flickr

One in five women experience rape or sexual assault during their college years, according to research from the Justice Department.

Read the post-show takeaway

The prevalence of rape and sexual assault led the Obama administration in 2011 to introduce new guidelines for schools under Title IX, a law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. "Sexual harassment of students, which includes sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX," says a letter from the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.

In the two years since the directive was issued, have colleges improved their approach to sexual assault? The question was thrown into doubt after the University of North Carolina threatened to expel Landen Gambill, a student who spoke publicly about the university's handling of her rape. Gambill, along with two other students and a former administrator, filed a complaint against the school with the Office of Civil Rights.

THE TAKEAWAY: If schools expel predators, they lose money.

Wendy Murphy, an adjunct law professor and former prosecutor, suggested that parents would be alarmed if they understood how pervasive campus rapes are. And colleges, she said, have little incentive to enlighten them.

"I'm concerned that parents are not aware," she said. "They might say, 'I haven't read anything about this school having problems, so my child is probably safe there.' There is no way for parents to know whether their child is more likely to be safe at this school versus that school. And very few parents know. ... Parents don't understand generally that there's a greater risk of being raped in college than in the real world. ...

"It's just a reality that higher education is very concerned about bad press. Because they think if parents hear there are rapes at a particular university, they're not going to send their child there — along with the $50,000 in tuition, by the way. So they don't want the attention. And because rape is a crime as well as a harm on campus under Title IX, and a violation of women's civil rights, it would have to become a public matter. So they care a little bit more about sweeping it under the rug than they should.

"But in addition, if they punish the perpetrators, if they make rape unforgivable and they have a zero-tolerance policy, they're going to have to get rid of the bad guys. And there are huge numbers of not only bad guys but predatory, repeat offenders on college campuses. It scares parents to hear that. But the truth is, if [colleges] get rid of the bad guys, that costs them $50,000 a year. ...

"It costs schools a lot in terms of bad press and cash dollars because if they kick out the bad guys they lose the tuition dollars. Often these are legacy students, or guys from influential families — the ones who get the particularly good treatment from schools — and so they're really protecting not only tuition dollars but donations over the years. It's a pretty horrible situation."

LEARN MORE ABOUT SEXUAL ASSAULT ON CAMPUS:

A frustrating search for justice. This 2010 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity concluded that students found responsible for sexual assaults on campus "often face little or no punishment from school judicial systems, while their victims' lives are frequently turned upside down."

Sexual Assault at Harvard. From Harvard's newspaper, The Crimson, comes a look at the way the school's administrators handle sexual assault. "They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened," one student wrote to the paper.

Sexual Assault on Campus. Information and statistics from the Justice Department on sexual assault and rape at colleges and universities.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.