It's often difficult to comprehend the enormous hurdles facing sexual assault victims on their road to reporting. But it's even harder to understand why universities like Duke would be in the business of creating another obstacle.
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Woman Depressed. Series
Woman Depressed. Series

It's often difficult to comprehend the enormous hurdles facing sexual assault victims on their road to reporting. But it's even harder to understand why universities like Duke would be in the business of creating another obstacle.

In 2011, the US Department of Education released a letter to schools around the country clarifying the requirements for Title IX compliance on sexual harassment policies. Called the "Dear Colleague" letter, the 18-page message details the ways in which universities are required to take an active role in preventing and addressing sexual harassment.

Ironically, the Title IX reforms resulted in a policy at Duke that's even worse at protecting victims.

Among the slew of clarifications outlined in the letter was a mandate that a school's sexual misconduct policy must fall under and match its policy for general harassment. In combining the two policies though, Duke adopted a shorter statute of limitations for reporting sexual misconduct. In short, victims now only have a year to seek disciplinary action against an alleged perpetrator.

So what's the problem with the statute of limitations?

The reasons why students would wait for over a year to report are numerous -- social pressures, threats, and medical issues can all contribute to a victim's silence in the aftermath of sexual assault. Duke even mandates that students seeking medical leave take a minimum of a year off of school. Under this policy, a rape victim taking medical leave for PTSD could be forced to return to Duke without options for removing their rapist from campus.

And on a campus that already suffers from a lack of reporting, the timeline puts an arbitrary expiration date on the experience of a victim.

Let's do the math. A report for the National Institute of Justice, cited in the Dear Colleague letter, found that about 1 in 5 women and 6.1 percent of males are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault while in college. If those numbers were to hold true for Duke's undergraduate population of 6,680, which is split evenly between males and females, you'd expect 668 female and 203.74 male victims of completed or attempted sexual assault on campus at any given time.

But last year, only six cases of sexual harassment were brought to the Duke Office of Student Conduct. Of those six, one student was unable to seek disciplinary action because they had passed the one-year deadline.

We already have a reporting problem. Why are we putting even more restrictions on victims who want to come forward?

One argument made to support the one-year timeline is that it protects individuals from being falsely accused. But the National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that the national rate of false reports was between only 2-8%. And even then, the university disciplinary system includes an outside investigation and a formal and confidential hearing process. There are national standards in place to ensure that the process is fair and to protect the rights of the accused.

The spirit of the original reforms was to protect the rights of sexual harassment victims. The Dear Colleague letter asserts that a weak sexual assault policy is a form of discrimination in itself--when universities do not take active measures to prevent and address sexual harassment, victims cannot fully benefit from what their school has to offer.

But when a victim's ability to report an incident is restricted to one year, the environment of discrimination still exists. Perpetrators remain on campus, and victims remain disadvantaged at no fault of their own.

We need to have a national conversation about the treatment of sexual assault victims on college campuses. Sexual assault is no petty crime--it affects the ability of victims to participate in the university community and denies them their right to an education. Victims can no longer feel safe or comfortable in a place that was intended to help them grow as individuals.

Many universities have similar reporting problems, but some are on the right track. Schools like Harvard, Princeton, UPenn, Georgetown, Brown, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins don't have statutes of limitations for reporting sexual misconduct. Duke Student Government passed a unanimous resolution last week calling for the removal of ours.

But here on campus, victims are still being silenced. And we need to continue talking until their voices are heard.

Stefani Jones is the Duke Student Government Vice President for Equity & Outreach.

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