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Sexual Assault against Women on College Campuses is Spreading

Colleges are Failing to Protect Women on Campus

A couple of weeks ago California Representative Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said she would press for more aggressive action against sexual assault on college campuses with increased funding for federal investigators, annual campus surveys and more comprehensive data on the outcomes of cases. Speier said she would seek to require universities to interview students who file complaints of sexual misconduct, addressing widespread concerns about inadequate investigations.

"The prevalence of sexual assault on campuses is an epidemic," Speier said in an interview. "It's going to take money, resources, enforcement and a dramatic change in the culture" to fix. Speier met with media along with six UC Berkeley students who have filed complaints with the federal government against the university in the last year, alleging a failure to adequately handle their cases. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating the complaint charging that Berkeley officials mishandled sexual assault cases.

Among other things, the students asked that a certified rape crisis counselor be provided to victims, that education about assaults be expanded beyond a focus on alcohol and that fraternities and sororities be targeted for additional outreach.

Speier said research suggests that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses but that nearly two-thirds of universities shirk their legal duty to address the cases. Yet, she said national momentum is growing to take stronger action against the problem.

To help deal with the growing problem of violence on college campuses directed toward female students, the Avon Foundation for Women provided support to Futures Without Violence, an organization that deals with the well-being of women and girls, to launch a groundbreaking campaign to address dating violence, stalking, and sexual assault on college campuses. Futures Without Violence recently released, Beyond Title IX: Guidelines for Prevention and Responding to Gender Based Violence in Higher Education, outlining how best to create and promote a campus norm of interpersonal respect and non-violent relationships. These guidelines are available to colleges and universities to adapt and implement on their campuses.

Current policies that deal with violence against women on campus do not cover the wide range of offenses that women face on a daily basis. Title IX asserts that students should be protected from sexual harassment on campus (sexual assault is included as a form of harassment). However, Title 9 does not protect students from domestic violence or stalking.

The Campus Violence Prevention Resource Guide developed by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), identifies one of the basic problems with college campuses in how they deal with violence against women. Colleges are reluctant to admit that violence against women does exist on campus and that everyone associated with the institution has a stake in solving this problem. I call it "The Joe Paterno Syndrome." A college official or the institution itself does not want to admit a problem exists/has occurred on their campus because it reflects badly on the institution. It is a form of ethical blindness where the ethical issues of running an institution and protecting its students and others are pushed into the background all in the name of protecting the institution's public image.

Violence against women on college campuses has increased in recent years for the same reasons violence has increased in our society. Today's students grow up viewing gratuitous violence on television, in movies, video games, and in social media and these collective influences de-sensitize students to right and wrong. The lines become blurred because young people come to believe what they are watching is something that is "normal" in society.

The problem goes much deeper and is born out of a sense that all ethics is situational. Young college males come to believe that it is OK to take advantage of a woman who has been drinking excessively (and may not be able to make an informed choice) because she is drunk and obviously wants to have a good time. While the male student would not think of attacking a women in the street, he may not hesitate to assault a female student too drunk to know better because the situation allows for it.

As a college professor I see the problem first hand. Everyone wants to party and have a good time. Most of the kids are away from home for the first time. Peer pressure influences otherwise good (i.e., ethical) kids to do something wrong. The notion that everyone does it seems to overcome clear thinking. Before long, the campus is dealing with a problem it is not equipped to deal with. So how does it react? A campus-wide session is held to explain to everyone why such behavior can't be tolerated and then everyone goes back to business as usual, until the next episode of assualt on campus.

Violence against women, and cyber-bullying for that matter, must be dealt with at the core. Where I teach not every student takes a basic course in ethics and most courses ignore the issues within the curriculum. Professors are afraid of being preachy and telling students what is and is not acceptable behavior, a standard that should be at the very core of a university education.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 29, 2014

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