Light needs to be shed on campus sexual assault

May 10, 2014

Bethany College is on a list that also includes Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.

Despite being in the company of such prestigious academic outposts, this particular list is one that officials at Bethany would surely prefer not to be a part of.

The small liberal arts school, located 16 miles west of Washington in Bethany, W.Va., is one of 55 institutions of higher learning under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for possibly violating federal law over the handling of harassment and sexual violence grievances. Penn State and Carnegie Mellon University are also among the schools on this list, which was released at the end of April. It was the first time the list was made public, and it was done so to “bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, an assistant secretary of education specializing in civil rights.

In Thursday’s Observer-Reporter, a Bethany spokeswoman said the federal investigation stems from an assault that allegedly happened on campus last fall. State and local police also investigated the incident and, ultimately, no charges were brought. Bethany maintains it is following the law, and Education Department officials cautioned that being included on the list does not mean these schools have systemic problems. But with undergraduate women facing one-in-five odds of being sexually assaulted at some point during their time on campus, awareness must be raised and the issue must be confronted more forthrightly.

The hookup-and-drinking culture at many schools must be pinpointed for some of the blame. Alcohol, as we all know, lowers inhibitions and clouds judgment. Women – and men – should be responsible, conduct themselves in a levelheaded manner and avoid situations that could turn ugly and dangerous. And men also must understand, beyond any doubt, that no means “no,” not “perhaps” or “yes.” Individuals can make a difference in reducing the prevalence of sexual assault, not just on campus but in any setting.

That being said, colleges and universities and their administrators also must do more. The offices where sexual assaults are investigated on many campuses are sometimes understaffed, and the staff that are present are sometimes untrained or ill-equipped to deal with such complaints, which are among the most sensitive and embarrassing any individual can air.

Many institutions are also too eager to sweep reports of sexual assault under the rug, for fear that, if they are made public, it will damage their reputation, scare off potential students, put a scare into parents and alienate donors and alumni who are willing to open their checkbooks during fund drives.

At the same time the Education Department released the list of colleges and universities being investigated, the White House announced new measures to deal with sexual assault on campuses, including guidelines on confidentiality, publicizing enforcement data and surveying students to determine just how prevalent sexual assault is. The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once noted, in a phrase that journalists summon frequently, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Bringing campus sexual assault out of the darkness would certainly represent a significant step in tackling the problem.

Given the time and investment, students should learn about many things when attending a college or university. Institutional indifference shouldn’t be among them.



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