Sexual violence on college campuses: Vice President Biden weighs in

"When it comes to sexual abuse, it's quite simple: No means no," Vice President Joseph Biden said as he launched a new initiative to prevent sexual violence at schools and on college campuses during a speech at the University of New Hampshire earlier today.

"No means no if you're drunk or you're sober; no means no if you're in bed in a dorm or on a street," he continued. "And it's a crime to disregard no. The allocation of blame has been for too many centuries allocated in a way that's totally irrelevant and inappropriate."

Urging the men in the audience to "speak up," Biden added: "So much more needs to be done to empower younger women as well as empower and educate younger men."

Studies show that about 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men are assaulted while they're in college-and, realistically, the number of victims is probably much higher. Incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence are vastly under-reported and, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, the problem isn't limited to college campuses: There are about 4,000 reports of sexual battery and 800 reported rapes and attempted rapes in public high schools, and some researchers estimate that more than one in 10 girls will be forced to have sex against their will by the time they graduate from high school.

"There is a terrible and alarming trend in the country of sexual violence," said Russlyn H. Ali, assistant secretary of education who heads the Office of Civil Rights.

While the guidance, issued in the form of a "Dear Colleague Letter" (DCL), does not create any new laws, it is groundbreaking because it marks the first time that the federal government has offered instruction on dealing with sexual harassment and sexual violence at educational institutions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined the Vice President in announcing the new guidance, which clarifies the legal responsibilities that schools already have under Title IX to prevent and respond to the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including rape, on their campuses and in their communities.

A Department of Civil Rights spokesperson said that immediate compliance is expected, since the Title IX requirements are already on the books-and have been for years.

"As caring adults, as parents, and as leaders, we must deal the brutal truth. The facts surrounding these incidents are shocking," Duncan said. "The misplaced sense of values and priorities in some of these cases is staggering. ... We have to do better, and we have to do better now."

"Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn," Biden pointed out. "That's why we're taking new steps to help our nation's schools, universities and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus."

Though many people are familiar with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in terms of how it levels the playing field for female athletes, the civil rights law also prohibits sexual discrimination via harassment and sexual violence on any college or school campus that uses federal funds.

"Many victims lose friends, give up on activities/classes, walk on campus in fear, have been told to drop the case by family or friends, and most common, all victims have been told that they are to blame, at least in part, for the sexual assault," said Colby Bruno, Managing Attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center. "I have heard from many of my clients that the experience of being raped is sometimes overshadowed by the experience of going through the disciplinary process-this effect is caused by the multiple and egregious violations of Title IX."

The current law requires that schools that receive federal funding have a Title IX coordinator to handle complaints, and that if a school knows, or reasonably should know, about an incident of sexual violence or harassment, the school is must take immediate action. Schools must publish a policy against sex discrimination, protect the rights of the claimant to present his or her case, and insure that cases are investigated promptly. The new guidance also reminds schools that they don't have to wait for the end of criminal procedures in order to start their own Title IX investigation. "The more severe the conduct, the less need there is to show a repetitive series of incidents to prove a hostile environment, particularly if the harassment is physical," the DCL states.

In mid-March the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights received a 26-page complaint from a group of Yale University students who allege that a sexually hostile environment exists on the Ivy League university's campus. Students filed the complaint after an October incident on the Old Campus, in which a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanted slogans such as "No means yes, yes means anal" at female students, The Yale Daily News reported.

"You only have to look as far as the Yale case to unfortunately see that this is way too common a problem on college campuses," said Lisa Maatz, National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education Chairperson and the AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations. "It's not something that victims have to be ashamed of. When they come forward, they need to know that they will be treated with respect, with dignity, and that a thorough investigation will take place."

A Department of Education spokesperson stressed that the new guidance was not related to the Yale complaint. Cases at Eastern Michigan University and Notre Dame have been resolved, and other cases, including several at the elementary and secondary-school levels, are still pending.

Preventing violence against women has long been on the Vice President's agenda. He is the author of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which changed the way domestic violence is handled by law enforcement. Incidents of violence against women have dropped by more than 50 percent since the act was passed.

The Vice President focused on the University of New Hampshire's Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program as an outstanding example of a university-wide effort to ensure a safe environment for all students, representatives from the department of education and the department of civil rights said recently.

"They certainly make the connection between sexual harassment and sexual violence," Maatz said. "From AAUW's perspective, that's key."

"Obviously, you want to provide assistance to schools so that they handle this appropriately," she added. "But the reality is that what you really what to see is good prevention programming and good prevention efforts, so you can help avoid sexual violence in the first place. I think the understanding that sexual harassment, if allowed to go unchecked, can lead to more violent situations, is an important connection to make."

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