Like millions of Americans, I recently dropped my daughter off to college for her freshman year. She was brimming with excitement and hope. I was troubled with gnawing apprehension, if not fear. I love her dearly and I want her to be safe. But will she be?
I’m like any parent. From the first day I walked her through the doors of kindergarten, I had to let go. Little by little. Allow her an increasing measure of freedom to learn, explore and mature in a nurturing, but protected, environment. But now, I’m not there at the end of the day to make sure my little girl is safe and happy. I knew this day would come. And I have dreaded it.
I’m a newsman. I know what happens. I report the stories all too often. Yes, college campuses are generally secure. But they are not impervious to the hidden danger of rape and other sexual crimes. It happens at an alarming rate.
A woman who attends college is more likely to be assaulted than a woman who does not. Nearly 20 % of female college students have been sexually assaulted, according to a White House task force.
I suspect the true number is significantly higher. Many young women are reluctant to report it. They keep it secret for fear of embarrassment, shame, retribution, and the trauma of reliving the nightmare during legal or disciplinary proceedings. I get it. There are repercussions. Victims are especially afraid of being stigmatized or ostracized within the tight, insular social circles on campus.
If a student does report being sexually assaulted, what then? There is ample evidence that many colleges are ill-equipped and unmotivated to handle the accusations seriously.
I was stunned to learn of a recent Senate report which found that 41 % of schools conducted no investigations in the past 5 years, notwithstanding numerous complaints by female students. Zero. How can that be?
The answer seems obvious to me. Schools are terrified of the fallout. They fear that any negative publicity might tarnish their otherwise sterling reputations resulting in diminished standing, not to mention enrollment applications.
Some administrators care less about the victims, and more about their own precious ivory tower images, lest students, parents and donors discover the truth. So, they pretend it doesn’t happen. Like Alice stepping “Through the Looking-Glass,” these colleges live in their own alternative world. It is time they step back into reality.
Parents, like myself, are catching on. And so is the government. Roughly 80 colleges and universities, including many prominent Ivy League schools, have been identified in a federal investigation into their handling of sexual assault cases, some of which involve lawsuits. Civil rights violations. Specifically, the Title IX law which forbids gender discrimination at institutions receiving federal money and requires colleges to investigate rape cases. (The law considers rape, assault and sexual harassment to be discrimination on the basis of sex.)
These cases reveal an unsettling fact: many colleges are dilatory or derelict in failing to prevent attacks. Once they do occur, campus investigations have proven to be scant, shoddy and incompetent. All too often, complaints are brushed aside. Local police are kept in the dark. Survivors are encouraged to drop it. Crimes are covered up. The alleged victim is victimized all over again.
Take the case of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State University. Accused of raping a student almost 2 years ago, the university did not bother to investigate, even though its athletic department was well aware of the incendiary allegations.
Inexplicably, Tallahassee police waited 2 weeks before interviewing the star quarterback. They conducted a cursory probe before dropping the case. Only now, under public pressure, is FSU launching an investigation, albeit belatedly. Fat chance it will amount to anything.
Awareness is on the rise driven, in part, by student activism. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, angry over how the school adjudicated her claim of rape, has taken to carrying a mattress around campus. Dubbed “Mattress girl” by fellow students and the media, her visually indelible protest has galvanized a growing demand for honesty and transparency. And why not? Schools should be required to publish accurate information about the frequency of assaults. It can be done without breaching individual students’ privacy.
I was relieved when my daughter told me her university conducts classes for incoming freshmen on rape awareness, prevention and reporting. Why don’t all colleges do that? Twenty-one percent of schools provide no response training for faculty and staff. Thirty-one percent offer no instruction whatsoever for students, much less resources or support services for survivors. Don’t expect campus police to fill the void. Many are insufficiently trained and have no protocols at all.
In my mind, too many educational institutions are obsessed with burnishing their stature and safeguarding their reputations. They will change course only if forced to do so. This is where lawyers in the Civil Rights Office at the Dept. of Education come in. They have the authority to halt federal funding to those colleges which fail to prevent, police or properly investigate campus rapes.
They can also levy fines and have done so already. But the amounts thus far have been insignificant.
Congress needs to act to impose much harsher penalties. They can be calculated based on a school’s wealth. For example, Yale University (which settled a Title IX claim of creating a sexually hostile environment for female students) has an annual operating budget of nearly $3 billion. One percent would constitute a $3 million fine. Of course, there must be assurances that the penalty’s cost cannot be passed along to students in the form of higher tuition. But three million bucks might actually get someone’s attention in those ivory towers.
Above all, colleges and universities must do more to always involve local police. No more secrets. Rape and other sexual assaults are crimes. They must be treated as such. Law enforcement should be allowed to do its job. Schools should stick to what they do best -- teaching. And that includes educating students about campus sex crimes.
When we send our children off to college and kiss them goodbye, we want to know their school is doing its absolute best to keep them safe.