Championing a Culture of Safety and Respect on Campus is Needed Now More than Ever

Terri Poore, Policy Director for RALIANCE

The Department of Education recently announced draft new permanent regulations on Title IX that will make it harder for campus sexual assault victims to seek justice. Unfortunately, by narrowing the legal definition of sexual harassment and limiting cases for which schools are responsible to only those that occur on campus, these new rules will make America’s college campuses less safe for survivors of sexual violence.

All students have the right to an education free from sexual violence and harassment. And every parent sending their child off to school deserves to know that our nation’s academic institutions will do everything possible to keep their child safe.

Even as the Department of Education turns its back on Title IX, the law remains unequivocal: educational institutions have a responsibility to prevent the things that create hostile environments, including sexual violence. This is why it’s important that our schools continue to treat campus sexual assault with the seriousness it deserves.

Taking ownership of this responsibility begins with schools assessing their policies and cultures to ensure that they are respectful of survivors and address behavior across the spectrum of sexual violence. These policies — focused on both prevention and response — should be thoroughly and clearly communicated to all students as soon as they set foot on campus.

Regardless of intervention from the federal government, our schools must raise awareness of resources available to students, including services such as medical care, emotional and academic support. When students feel supported and know how to access confidential counseling, they are more likely to report an experience of sexual assault.

Further, by prioritizing prevention programs and bystander training, schools can help change the social norms and stereotypes that create conditions in which sexual violence occurs.

When mutual respect and prevention is everyone’s responsibility, we move one step closer to a safer and inclusive campus community for all.

Schools can also foster a culture of safety and respect by working to eliminate barriers to reporting and providing options to do so. Researchers have found that more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.

Barriers to reporting sexual assault can be associated with a variety of factors, including shame and not wanting others to know. Victims are often afraid others will make the situation worse, not better — they fear not being believed; retaliation by the perpetrator, friends or the school; and simply the unknown. Most students don’t understand how to report or what to expect from the process. By helping them feel safe in reporting an act of assault, schools can create an environment that encourages their students to seek help, and, if they desire, justice.

Finally, all campus faculty, administrators and staff must be trained to respond promptly to grievances and facilitate an equitable complaint process. A student may disclose their experience with sexual assault or harassment to a trusted faculty member who may want to help but not know the best way to do so. It’s critical that the entire campus be educated in how to help the student, from helping them file a complaint to ensuring they receive the necessary resources and support.

The #MeToo movement has sparked a global call to action to hold our leaders and institutions accountable for enabling and concealing sexual harassment and misconduct. And before #MeToo, there was a wave of activism aimed at bringing campus sexual assault into the light.

What’s more, the rise of #MeToo has opened a box that won’t easily be closed, and schools should expect that their new freshman class will be more committed than ever to ending sexual violence once and for all.

Colleges and universities cannot turn their backs on their promise to do everything in their power to keep our students and campuses safe. Thanks to #MeToo, we’re finally seeing a true public reckoning with attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs about sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. Our institutions of higher education must seize this important cultural moment and champion campus cultures rooted in safety, respect and equality.

Terri Poore is a Policy Director for RALIANCE, a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation.