Agonizing. Enraging. Inspiring. These are a few words that came to mind after watching "The Hunting Ground," a new documentary on campus sexual violence that opened this past weekend.
Like "The Invisible War," the Oscar-nominated documentary on military sexual violence also created by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, "The Hunting Ground" makes the case that there are systemic problems at colleges and universities to addressing sexual assault that must and can be confronted, right now.
As public debate continues on how we can best respond to campus sexual violence, the film makes an important contribution by highlighting the voices of survivors, their parents, and university staff in rallying together to become advocates.
Here are five key points to consider as you think through these issues.
1. Sexual assault survivors and perpetrators include people of all races, religions, economic classes, genders and gender identities, and sexual orientations.
The film captures powerful first-hand accounts from many survivors, women and men of diverse backgrounds. Too often, however, incidents receive insufficient attention when the victim or perpetrator does not fit a "typical" mold.
For example, the ACLU represents "Gabrielle," a college student who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her girlfriend. After ending the relationship, "Gabrielle" experienced continued harassment and filed a complaint with her university. While her university found that her ex-girlfriend violated its sexual assault policy, it ordered no remedies to help protect "Gabrielle." Comments made during the disciplinary process indicated that university officials took the sexual abuse less seriously because it was committed in the context of a dating relationship involving two women.
When the goal is to end all sexual violence, it is vital to recognize that it can take many different forms. Abuse and violence should not be minimized because of who committed it and who experienced it.
2. Colleges are not the only schools failing sexual assault survivors. School districts are often worse.
"The Hunting Ground" shines a spotlight on how colleges and universities fail to address sexual assault complaints appropriately. But it's important to remember that sexual violence and harassment is perpetrated against younger students as well. A 2008 survey of middle and high school students found that 40 percent of girls and 28 percent of boys in middle school and 52 percent of girls and 26 percent of boys in high school report experiencing peer-on-peer sexual assault. Approximately 44 percent of sexual assaults occurred at school.
ACLU client Rachel Bradshaw experienced discrimination and retaliation by her high school after she reported being sexually assaulted by another student. She first told her band director, who directed her to talk it through with the boy. Eventually, the police were called. But police concluded after only one day that the sexual conduct was consensual, even though a nurse examiner told Rachel that the physical exam showed injuries consistent with sexual assault. Based on that finding, the school decided that Rachel had committed "public lewdness" and sent her and the boy to the same alternative disciplinary school.
The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2014 that Title IX complaints are currently pending against 23 school districts. Rachel filed a complaint with OCR, which determined that her rights were violated under Title IX and mandated her Texas school district to undertake major reforms.
3. Police misconduct in responding to sexual violence – on campus and off – is a grave problem in many communities.
As Rachel's case and others described in "The Hunting Ground" illustrate, going to the police is not a solution for many survivors.
Recent investigations by the Department of Justice into police departments in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Missoula, Montana, found institutional hostility and dismissiveness towards sexual violence complainants generally. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department concluded that in many cases the police misclassified sexual offenses as less serious crimes. Concerns about gender bias in policing sexual and domestic violence led the Department of Justice to declare in 2013: "The prevention of sex-based discrimination, including sex-based discrimination by law enforcement, is a top priority of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice."
4. Everybody has a stake in ensuring that school processes for responding to sexual violence complaints are fair.
The film portrays many ways that school disciplinary processes have denied justice to survivors: immediately dismissing or ignoring their complaints, blaming them for the violence committed against them, and failing to inform them of how the school handles complaints or developments along the way.
A system that respects the rights of both complainants and respondents is essential to building confidence in how schools handle these reports and advancing equal educational opportunity. As schools reform their processes to address concerns, it is imperative they put in place processes that are fair to both parties.
5. Activism on campus sexual violence can transform a culture that condones sexual abuse in schools and in society more broadly.
For me, the most valuable part of "The Hunting Ground" was its depiction of survivors' activism. Many who experienced sexual violence on campus are now leading the movement to end it. As an attorney who has represented survivors for over a decade, I've seen a major shift in recent years – more survivors are speaking out, organizing, and demanding reform.
Gender-based violence is a civil and human rights issue, with institutional and societal causes. The work that is being done on campus sexual violence doesn't just impact those on campuses. What activists learn about how to prevent sexual violence and strengthen colleges' responses can be applied to school districts, and challenging the ways that local law enforcement agencies improperly investigate students' complaints can help change that system for all victims who file criminal complaints.
More fundamentally, the advocacy has sparked deep conversations and debates among young people, alumni, families, legislators, and communities about sexual violence, a traditionally taboo topic. These exchanges are vital, as silence only perpetuates misconceptions and victim-blaming while failing to hold individuals and institutions accountable. A greater shared understanding of sexual violence and how we as a society can more effectively respond ensures that all of us can learn, work, and live with dignity.