A semester after Duke changed its sexual misconduct policy, administrators welcomed the announcement of a national task force examining sexual assault on college campuses.
One month after pushing the Pentagon to stop sexual assault in the military, President Barack Obama is tackling rape on college campuses. On Jan. 25, President Obama announced his creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to address the prevalence of sexual assault among college students.
“College should be a place where our young people feel secure and confident, so they can go as far as their talents will take them,” Obama said at a news conference. “Some of this is a job for government. But really, it’s up to all of us.”
Inspired by a report by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the new task force consists of the attorney general, the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Health and the Secretary of the Interior. The group aims to combat college rape culture by encouraging education and bystander intervention.
In his statement, the President cited an estimate that one in five college women is sexually assaulted. He pointed to the potential consequences of sexual assault, arguing that this is not just a family or community issue, but a national one.
Members of the Duke community have reacted positively to the announcement.
“A national task force is more than an appropriate response,” said Sheila Broderick, gender violence intervention coordinator for the Women’s Center.
Broderick commented that she has seen an increase in Duke students reaching out for help after a sexual assault over the past few years. The Women’s Center has been proactive in connecting with students to educate them about the services available to them and to inform them of their rights, Broderick said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta commented that he hopes the task force might introduce new ideas and practices to help stop sexual assault.
“I applaud anything and everything that can be done, at the federal, state and local level…to ensure that every predator is stopped, “ Moneta said.
Obama compelled the newly formed task force to examine whether colleges’ guidelines are aligned with national standards. The group will examine college officials’ records in responding to sexual assault, encouraging federal agencies to get involved when college officials fail to take action.
Duke Student Government President Stefani Jones, a senior, noted that although Duke has made many improvements to its policies relating to sexual assault, she would prefer to see more transparency in how cases are decided.
Duke’s guidelines are similar to other colleges and universities as they follow the national guidelines laid out by Title IX, Jones said. But unlike universities that still have statutes of limitations for reporting sexual assault, Duke’s was removed in 2012. Now, students may report sexual assault until the accused perpetrator graduates.
Sue Wasiolek, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, explained that the guideline for handling sexual misconduct cases changed last summer.
“A decision was made that after a finding of responsibility in a sexual assault case, the hearing panel would start its conversation about sanctioning with expulsion,” Wasiolak said. “That does not mean that students found responsible for sexual assault will automatically be expelled.”
Wasiolak noted that all sanctions—including suspension and expulsion—had always been options in handling sexual assault.
Broderick commented that the Women’s Center advocates that sexual misconduct hearings be based on a scientific understanding of sexual assault—that sexual predators are often repeat offenders.
Duke reexamined its policies for handling sexual assault after the Department of Education released a Dear Colleague Letter in April 2011, Bryan said. It was found that Duke’s guidelines were “generally aligned” with the national guidelines, though the policy was changed so that the accuser could appeal an outcome and the standards for responsibility to a “preponderance of evidence” were altered.
Amanda Young, a senior public policy major, conducted research about universities’ sexual assault policies for her senior thesis. Her thesis, which she completed in December, compared the sexual assault policies of six North Carolina universities and found that in many cases, the policies are not clear enough to be helpful to students.
Although Young said she was not sure that the national task force would be particularly influential due to its bureaucratic nature, she commented that it is an important symbolic step in bringing attention to this issue.
Young looked at Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University, Appalachian State University, UNC Asheville and Guilford College for her research. She explored whether the universities complied with Title IX and the requirements and suggestions of the Dear Colleague Letter.
During her research process, Young analyzed each university’s policy and interviewed both students and administrators at each of the six schools.
“The students tended to find a lot more problems than the administrators,” Young said. “It wasn’t surprising, because the administrators were in offices related to student conduct. They had more of an interest in believing that the policies were good.”
Young also expressed concern that policies are not accessible enough for students. She suggested that all universities should have information easily accessible in a publicly available, online document to make the process more transparent. She expressed concern that the lack of transparency makes students less likely to report, citing the discrepancy between the large number of people seeking counseling for sexual assault from the Women’s Center and the number of sexual assault cases reported by Student Conduct.
Broderick said that the Women’s Center helped 163 student gender violence victims last year.
Dean of Student Conduct Stephan Bryan said that a “small” number of sexual misconduct cases are processed by his office and declined to provide statistics about whether any expulsions had been made since the guideline change.
Broderick commented she is “hopeful” that a national conversation about sexual assault indicates that people are becoming less tolerant of gender violence.
“Simply put, what I hear in my office and on the sidewalks at Duke is a deeper understanding that sexual violence is a cultural problem, not an individual problem,” Broderick said. “Your generation simply is better than mine at saying: This is wrong and we can do something about it.”