When I arrived at the University of North Carolina three years ago, I quickly learned what life was like for women on college campuses.
We're told to follow a set of rules: Walk home from the library with keys in hand and glance over your shoulder often. Keep pepper spray nearby. Never, ever, go to parties and bars alone.
These are smart things to have in mind, regardless of circumstance. But they also reflect the culture that women have been conditioned to accept, in which crimes of violence and sexual assault are widespread and real.
Last month, the Education Department released the names of 55 colleges and universities facing Title IX investigations on how they handle sexual assault claims. Florida State University is included for its failure to promptly investigate several rape accusations — similar to criticisms of my own school, which is also on the list. This groundswell of federal investigations is changing the way we think about victims of sexual assault and the roles that universities play in dealing with these cases.
The high-profile case at FSU brought scrutiny to the university and highlighted the difficulties of handling these cases. In 2012, future Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston was accused of sexual assault, and the investigation was mishandled by the Tallahassee Police Department and FSU.
While the facts at UNC and FSU are different, the same issues are involved. Victims of sexual assault claim that administrators are insensitive during the cumbersome reporting process. Colleges, which have a great incentive to protect their reputations, are in tough situations when asked to provide support for sexual assault victims while preserving due process for the accused. But that doesn't exonerate universities that fail to follow federal law.
Handcuffed by federal privacy laws, universities process these cases in a system characterized by secrecy, a lower standard of proof than used by the criminal courts and inconsistent penalties. Activists promoting reforms are largely credited for bringing these issues to light, sparking nationwide protests and pressuring universities to revamp their policies. However, what is most interesting is that activists are embracing Title IX as a vehicle for reform when Title IX just puts more responsibility into the hands of universities that are so bad at balancing this issue in the first place.
Criticisms of how universities handle these claims are common. Many cases are adjudicated by a board composed of faculty, and sometimes students, with limited training on treating sexual assault victims with compassion. If found guilty, the accused may face punishment as light as a warning or as severe as expulsion. Universities may proceed with an investigation without the police, who are the best equipped to deal with cases of such serious criminal nature.
A White House task force has made headway by drafting new guidelines on combating campus sexual assault. As its report notes, universities should hire trained counselors to hold confidential conversations with victims. Campuswide surveys should be sent out, the report recommends, so administrators get a clearer understanding of how often sexual assaults occur. Further, there should be more coordination with rape crisis centers and local law enforcement to better address claims.
These are actions students deserve. But the Education Department's enforcement of such recommendations can be inadequate and arbitrary.
Despite the number of universities under investigation, the Office of Civil Rights, charged with handling complaints, has not found any university in violation of Title IX or issued any fines. Instead, an outside agreement is always reached between the office and school administrators about adopting and enforcing appropriate sexual assault guidelines.
It's time for the federal government to act decisively. For legitimate change to occur, the Office of Civil Rights can't be afraid to punish schools. This reluctance is the greatest hindrance to reducing sexual assault. The enforcement of fines or elimination of federal money should be enough motivation for universities to make proactive decisions when it comes to the safety of students.
Yes, this issue is incredibly complex. That's all the more reason to smartly address it. But one thing is certain: There can no longer be a lack of consequences for sexual assault.
I want to be confident that my university, the place where I spend my time and money — and discover what it means to exist in this world — values me as both a woman and a human being, and upholds that promise.
Liz Crampton, a Times intern, is the 2014 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at ecrampton @tampabay.com.