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Campus Rape Horror Stories Persist: How Can We Change the Status Quo?

Schools keep messing up how they handle rape cases. What gives, and what can we change?

The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs was condemned this winter for a program encouraging female students to urinate or vomit as acceptable methods of deterring rapists--because it encouraged passivity and didn't get to the heart of the problem. The University of North Carolina landed national media attention when its disciplinary board threatened to  punish, maybe even expel, a female student for speaking out to the media about partner abuse--as though her outcry was intimidating her assailant.  Oklahoma State University refused to call the cops on an alleged rapist to protect his grades from being made public. Princeton has been revealed as burying reports about sexual assault. An Occidental administrator directed a letter to the entire community reflecting skepticism of  rape accusations, saying, "it is not always clear what has happened in incidents like these." Dartmouth students reacted with such venom to an anti rape-culture, pro-diversity protest that the University had to cancel classes. A high school principal told a female survivor not to report her rape because it would hurt her assailant's basketball recruitment chances--and he allegedly assaulted another student shortly thereafter.

Whether these kinds of offenses take place at high schools, state schools, small liberal arts “oases,” community colleges, or Ivy League universities, many institutions of higher education--even those that have pledged to change--are failing rape survivors in embarrassing, public ways.

Every time we turn around it seems like another institution has flubbed a case. And when the reaction to rape reports hurt survivors, that can double the trauma and create barriers to equal access to education. The federal government has specifically warned universities about this   in a recent Dear Colleague Letter--saying many campus assault policies violated Title IX, and noting that "a single instance of rape is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment"

The federal government knows something is wrong. Activists know something is wrong. Victims know something is wrong. So what gives?

While some schools have certainly made strides, it’s clear that the kind of change needed is totally systemic; a top-to-bottom overhaul from disciplinary policy, to prevention and education, to a culture shift in the way students and those tasked with their care talk and think about sex and consent.

Perhaps the steps students at some schools are taking--protesting and suing their alma maters--is the only way to get things to shift.

Beyond Taking Back the Night

As I walked across the Barnard campus near my home this week, I saw students sitting out in the cold raising awareness about rape. They were participating in a longstanding tradition: tabling for “Take Back the Night,”  the annual anti-rape event that occurs on and around bucolic-seeming college quads around the country, revealing a sad underbelly of campus life. The event usually features marches, a survivor’s speakout, and other projects to raise awareness about, and healing from, sexual assault and violence. The students organizing the marches have changed fashion and hair styles and as one Barnard student recently confirmed to me, each successive generation of activists works at making the event more inclusive, safe, and respectful of survivors.

Having a better, more nurturing Take Back the Night--or adding Slutwalk to the awareness-raising mix--is wonderful, but universities themselves remain slow to change the way they officially deal with the issue. Perhaps that’s because having the courage to really confrontin the heart of the issue, whether by convening a task force, changing policy, releasing reports, or any other kind of much-needed transparency, will bring bad publicity on any institutions. And colleges that want tuition money don’t want that kind of bad publicity. As Lisa Wade, faculty at Occidental College (which is the subject of a legal complaint), writes:

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