The U.S. Department of Education needs to do a better job disclosing which colleges it finds to be in violation of federal law handling sexual assault cases, a group of 39 members of Congress argued in a letter Wednesday.
The bipartisan group of legislators, led by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), asked the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to disclose which colleges and universities are under investigation for alleged failures in responding to sexual misconduct, as required under the federal gender equity law Title IX.
The letter further asked for the office to disclose which schools have pending complaints against them, as well as which schools have any previous resolution agreements with the office and which schools have had fines issued for violating federal laws. Finally, the letter argued that it should be mandatory for colleges and universities to post records of past incidents and deficiencies on their own websites.
"It shouldn't be a guessing game if the Department of Education has found a history of colleges and universities failing to respond to sexual violence," Speier said. "American families have a right to know when that history is present, and institutions should be held accountable for commitments they make to the federal government to stem the violence on their campuses."
Last week, President Barack Obama announced the formation of a campus sexual assault task force. Among other things, the group will be responsible for finding ways to increase the transparency of enforcement activities by the federal government.
Many student sexual assault survivors are hopeful that the task force will lead to the implementation of some of their proposed reforms.
In the past year, amid an unprecedented wave of complaints alleging institutional mishandling of sexual assault cases, student activists have criticized the Education Department for not telling the public when colleges violate Title IX or the Clery Act, which requires colleges to track and disclose crimes committed on campus.
Currently, when the OCR opens a federal investigation into a school, it only releases letters of announcement to the complainant and the accused institution. Nearly two dozen higher education institutions are currently under review by the OCR for Title IX compliance.
The Education Department's Clery compliance reviews, handled by a separate office, are only disclosed once the investigation is complete.
"We're really thrilled to see so many of our demands presented to the department this summer -- particularly increased transparency and pressure on schools to respond to the needs of survivors of same-sex violence, queer survivors, and trans survivors -- centralized in the Congresswoman's recommendations," said Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale Law student who petitioned the Education Department to make these changes in 2013.
Education Department spokesperson Dorie Nolt confirmed they received the letter.
"We agree that this is a very important issue, which is why we have prioritized civil rights enforcement and are working to galvanize a national effort to help prevent sexual assaults and to better support survivors of sexual violence," Nolt said. "In fact, last week, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum to establish the 'White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.'"
Both the letter and President Obama noted that although it's estimated one in five women will experience sexual assault while in college, the vast majority of victims do not report.
To that end, the members of Congress asked the Education Department to begin requiring college and universities to conduct exit surveys about whether students experienced sexual assault or harassment. These anonymous school climate surveys and exit interviews "would provide information to students and universities about the true scope of the problems on each campus," the representatives argued in their letter.
The idea for anonymous surveys is another reform that has been proposed by student sexual assault survivors and experts alike over the past year.
Only three institutions of higher education are currently required to conduct such surveys: the military academies.
The surveys from the military academies and the armed forces as a whole have pointed toward large numbers of both men and women experiencing sexual assault, prompting bipartisan efforts to eliminate the crime among service members.
David Lisak, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said these surveys could knock administrators out of denial if the numbers from the surveys don't match up with the number of students who formally came forward to report their assault.
"They do tell an institution, for example, how well they are improving the climate on campus and the level of confidence victims have in reporting," Lisak said.
Both Speier's and Maloney's home states have universities facing scrutiny over allegations that they did not properly handle sexual assault on campus. The State University of New York system was found to have deficiencies in its policies through an Education Department review, and the University of Southern California, the University of California-Berkeley and Occidental College in California are all dealing with federal complaints.
Maloney was an author of the Campus SaVE legislation, which was passed as part of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act in 2013. The Campus SaVE provision requires institutions of higher education to develop and communicate their policies on dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence, and increases the types of crimes that must be disclosed under the Clery Act.
This story has been updated to include comment from the Education Department.
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