Are Title IX offices helping prevent sexual assault in higher education?

There has been 63 reports of rape at American University in the past two years. Credit: Kristen Griffith

A sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park said she would not feel comfortable allowing the college to handle her case if she was sexually assaulted.

The University of Maryland, as well as colleges around the country that accept government funding, are required to follow the Department of Education’s Title IX rules and procedures. Title IX requires colleges to provide resources for students, faculty and staff who have been sexually assaulted or fall victim to sex discrimination.

The amount of resources available doesn’t persuade Sarah Riback to leave her Title IX case in UMD’s hands.

“I do not think that UMD does a good job handling sexual assault cases or, more broadly, Title IX incidents,” Riback, president of American Association of University Women said.

One reason being, the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct was under funded last year and resorted to asking students help pay.

“I think that this incident, in addition to the federal investigations open against the university, are indicative of the culture that exists within the administration here in terms of taking these cases seriously,” Riback said in an email.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights office has two investigations currently open at UMD – one starting Jan. 11, the other March 31.

Riback also said she’s heard of Title IX officers turn students away because the office couldn’t handle their cases.

The 1972 Title IX law states that if a student reports harassment, or if an employee observes it, the school must immediately conduct an investigation. Colleges and universities are also required to follow the Clery Act, which involves publishing an annual security report from the past three years.

Statistics from local universities

UMD, made up of almost 40,000 students, had a total of 30 rapes reported in the past three years; George Washington University, with nearly 30,000 students had 15 reported cases; And Georgetown University, with close to 20,000 students, had 33 reports. Howard University, with about 9,000 students had 11 reported rapes of sexual offenses in the last two years; and American University, with about 13,000 students, had 63 reported cases.

Georgetown University administered a sexual assault and misconduct climate survey January 2016 that almost 8,000 students participated in. About 31 percent of undergraduate women and one in ten undergraduate men experienced non-consensual sexual contact due to physical force or incapacitation since entering university.

The Department of Education requires that Title IX coordinators take immediate action when an incident is reported. Universities who do not comply with this statue can face an investigation, or ultimately lose their federal funding.

AU currently has three open Title IX investigations, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX tracker – one from March 2015, another from June 2016 and the most recent was opened March of this year. Howard and George Washington each have one on-going investigation from August.

A look at American University

“Regardless of any school you go to, sexual assault will be reported and it will be underreported because people don’t like to talk about it.” – Natalie Hedden


Natalie Hedden, president of American University’s Alpha Phi Omega chapter
Credit: Kristen Griffith

AU’s Title IX staff consist of five officers with different roles. Dean of Academic Affairs Mary Clark is the chief Title IX officer for faculty, which means students, staff or faculty who have a Title IX complaint of a faculty member.

Clark named a few things the administration has done to inform the campus of their resources. For example, she said either once or twice a semester, the administration updates the website and sends emails to the campus with information on who the Title IX officers are and how to contact them.

“I’ve gone to all the faculty departments this fall to talk about campus climate matters and who to contact with concerns about campus climate,” she said.

She said no one has reported sexual assaults to her, but they have reported sexual harassment and sex discrimination incidents.

Natalie Hedden, president of AU’s Alpha Chi Omega chapter, said that the resources and procedures in place don’t make reporting sexual assault any easier.

“A lot of times, regardless of what you do, it’s going to be unattractive to people because it’s hard to get students to report and then weekly engage in conversations about what happened,” she said. “Regardless of any school you go to, sexual assault will be reported and it will be underreported because people don’t like to talk about it.”

Hedden applauded the office of advocacy services for interpersonal and sexual violence, or OASIS, a branch in the Wellness Center where students can confidentially speak about their assaults without officially reporting them.

Hedden, a senior at American, said a few entities on campus spread awareness on sexual assault. For example, she referred to the Flushington Post, an awareness-spreading newsletter from the Wellness Center that she used to see posted on the bathroom stall in her freshmen dorm.

Issue two of the Flushington Post in one of American University’s bathroom stalls Credit: Kathryn Sanders

“In all the dorms on all the floors, the residence assistants will have at least one billboard dedicated to how to protect yourself against sexual assault and what to do if you’ve been a survivor of sexual assault,” Hedden said.

She said people who move off campus and are less involved in extracurricular activities may be less exposed to the resources available to them.

Compared to the schools her friends attend, Hedden said AU talks about sexual assault way more, but there are always areas of improvement.

“There’s no sign that sexual assault on this campus is reducing, and I don’t think that’s the result of poor communication on the university’s part at all, it’s just the fact that it’s a culture,” she said.

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