Last week President Barack Obama launched his “It’s On Us” initiative to combat collegiate sexual assault, thus reminding the general public of the shameful epidemic flourishing in the dark corners of college campuses across the country. In recent years, reports of sexual offenses reported at colleges have risen; and in some schools this rise has been stunning. For example, between 2010 and 2012, the number of alleged forcible sex offenses has more than doubled at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus — from 16 to 34. In fact, among all four-year colleges and universities with at least 1,000 enrolled students in 2012, the University of Michigan was second in total number of alleged forcible sex offenses, it ranked only behind the outlying Penn State University, whose total was affected by the horrifying actions of Jerry Sandusky. Sexual assault at colleges has been a chronic problem that is finally receiving significant attention. Given its complexity, no single institution or organization will be able to end all sexual offense, but it is high time for something to be done. Hoping to discover pieces of an eventual solution, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board will be devoting a series of editorials exploring the web of factors that allow for sexual assault to occur at college. The purpose of this editorial is to provide an overview of the current situation.

In 2012, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reported that 18.3 percent of women and 1.4 percent of men say that they were raped at some point in their lives. In April 2014, the White House’s sexual assault task force found that one in five women is sexually assaulted at college. This number has been widely debated, but even one sexual assault is too many. One of the reasons the actual number of sexual assaults is unknown is because so many sexual assaults are not reported. In a paper published in 2001 (the unavailability of more recent studies on this topic suggest an apathy toward sexual violence), the National Institute of Justice found that less than 5 percent of college women report sexual assaults. There are many understandable reasons why a survivor would not report a sexual assault, one being the frustrating mishandling of sexual assault allegations at numerous universities.

In part, college sexual assault has become so widespread because universities are not prepared to deal with allegations. Not only does this create opportunities for sexual crimes to go unpunished, but it is a serious deterrent to reporting offenses. To gain the trust of their students, colleges need to exhibit the ability to thoroughly investigate allegations and fairly discipline those found guilty while undeniably protecting the desired confidentiality of survivors. So far, few schools have been able to demonstrate this level of competence.

According to a report in the Huffington Post, as of Aug 13, the Department of Education has been investigating 76 colleges that may have violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 in their handling of alleged sexual assault cases on campus — up from the May 1 number of 55 schools. The University of Michigan is one of the schools under investigation in part for its management of the allegations against former football kicker Brendan Gibbons. Recently, an additional complaint has been filed with the Office of Civil Rights in which a residential advisor alleges he was threatened with rape by another student. Instead of protecting the RA, he says the University fired him.

Though most schools purport to have a comprehensive plan that has the survivor’s best interests at heart, when presented with an opportunity to demonstrate this concern for student safety, many colleges fail. As frustrating as it is to have such low reporting numbers of sexual assaults, it is easy to see why this is the case. As a result, lack of reporting or mishandling of these allegations means no investigation, no consequences and no end to the assaults. Colleges are not prepared.

Despite a clear inability to appropriately aid survivors, university officials still promote a damaging culture of victim-blaming. Campus culture is a serious contributor in the sexual assault epidemic at colleges. Harvard University is one of the schools under federal investigation for violating Title IX and has the third-highest number of alleged forcible sex offenses. This is the school that has produced anecdotes such as “Dear Harvard: You Win,” where a survivor describes the inaction of university administrators in its student-run newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. With questions of the school’s competence, a reasonable survivor might decide that Harvard administrators cannot be trusted to handle a sexual assault allegation appropriately. It should be painfully obvious to the objective viewer why a survivor would not want to report a sexual offense. And yet, Harvard Spokesman Jeff Neal was happy to shift the burden of responsibility to survivors when he said, “We firmly believe that more robust reporting of sexual assaults by victims is an important component of our efforts to prevent these crimes and to ensure that those affected get the support that they need.” Victim-blaming is just one aspect of many when discussing campus culture on sexual assault: general ignorance, consent definitions, gender norms, etc. are all contributing factors that must be addressed.

The culture surrounding sexual assault on college campuses is a complicated issue that has deeply rooted ties to a general culture of male hegemony in a patriarchal society, but there are ways to address it by educating students and faculty. Currently, university policies across the nation are a mess, but they can be improved by prioritizing survivors and implementing a clearly defined procedure that investigates all potential allegations. As President Obama begins to combat sexual assault from a national level, it is important to remember that everyone can and should help. This is a crisis that has persisted for too long, and it’s on all of us.

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