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A Campus Free of Fear

Ramya S.,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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May 14, 2014

As summer approaches, young people around the country are celebrating graduations and planning for exciting new beginnings in the fall – a new school year, perhaps a transition to middle or high school, or a move onto a college campus. These transitions should be exciting, positive, and healthy experiences for students and their families.

Certainly, these new beginnings bring about many challenges, too. But worrying about sexual assault should not be one of them.

Unfortunately, too many young people are denied the basic right to an education free from fear and violence. When schools and colleges ignore reports of sexual violence, and when they retaliate against victims who come forward, they violate this right.

On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education released the names of 55 institutions of higher education under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Carnegie Mellon is one of the universities under investigation, as a result of a complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of a sexual assault survivor there. The release of the list follows the publication of the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

Ending gender-based violence on college campuses should be a top priority for government at all levels. Sexual violence is a serious public health problem with devastating consequences for individuals and entire communities. According to the latest available data, 19 percent of women and 6.1 percent of college men report experiencing completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college.

Rape and sexual assault survivors often suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health problems – including depression, chronic pain, diabetes, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder – and they are more likely than non-victims to attempt or consider suicide. Survivors may experience difficulty in their relationships, a drop in GPA, or difficulty maintaining a full course load, or they may decide to drop out of school altogether.

But sexual violence is not an inevitable aspect of life on college campuses – or anywhere else for that matter – and individual cases do not exist in isolation. Institutions play a central role in setting the tone when it comes to gender equity – a tone that varies depending on how the institution responds to and works to prevent sexual violence. Colleges and universities deprive students of the right to an equal education when they discourage victims from coming forward and refuse to respond effectively to complaints.

Not only is this wrong, it is also illegal. Title IX of the Education Amendments has prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding since 1972. Discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault.

Title IX is pretty awesome because it is expansive. By addressing the various needs and challenges faced by survivors, Title IX pushes universities to do a better job of creating a campus environment that discourages and, ideally, prevents sexual violence. It is an important resource for survivors, who are too often denied remedies and are themselves pushed out of school.

Students, you are not powerless and you are not alone.

You, too, can help ensure that all students can attend school free from fear of gender-based violence. Empower yourselves and your friends by learning more about your rights. We’ve created these resources to help you do just that. Spread the word!

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