EDITORIAL: Campus Safety Act needed to combat sexual assault

The York Dispatch
Brent Webb Brigham Young University Academic Vice President speaks with protesters who stand in solidarity with rape victims on the campus of Brigham Young University during a sexual assault awareness demonstration Wednesday, April 20, 2016, in Provo, Utah. BYU students who say they were sexually assaulted are finding themselves under investigation for possible violations of the Mormon school's honor code against sex and drinking. BYU says it will re-evaluate the practice. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and colleges nationwide must assess their cultures and address sexual assault, which is prevalent on campuses.

For a number of reasons, this is a difficult task.

Victims don’t always feel comfortable coming forward. Cultural shame is a primary factor, as is fear of retribution or blame. Victims often feel as if they may have caused the assault, inadvertently, during interactions with an assailant.

The CDC reports that perpetrators are often intimate partners or acquaintances.

Sometimes victims believe they can just move on with their lives, but often the incident causes psychological upheaval.

As York Dispatch health reporter Katherine Ranzenberger wrote in a recent blog post (“I’m a survivor, and that’s OK”), she thought by “moving on,” she could put sexual assault — date rape — behind her. But she couldn’t.

BLOG: I am a survivor, and that's OK

Today, she urges victims to speak out — and all of us to stay aware and open, because chances are, we know a victim. How we encourage those close to us to be open without shame is key to providing a safe place for victims of sexual assault.

But there is still work to be done. Education is an important component — as is legislation.

OPED: Key to ending campus sexual assaults is transparency

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, college campuses reported more than  6,700 forcible sex offenses in 2014 — but a recent study shows that the actual number of offenses is estimated to be at least four times that number.

Rather than protect survivors and hold assailants accountable, colleges and universities are incentivized by the current federal laws to sweep cases under the rug. A recent survey of colleges and universities found that 41 percent of colleges have not conducted a single investigation of sexual violence on their campuses in the past five years.

Currently, 178 universities are under federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for alleged violations of Title IX related to the handling of sexual violence. Additionally, 80 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations against female students ages 18-24 go unreported to police.

A bipartisan group of 36 senators has proposed the Campus Accountability & Safety Act (S. 590) to protect students and boost accountability and transparency at colleges and universities.

The new legislation incorporates input from survivors, students, colleges and universities, law enforcement and advocates. It aims to:

  • Establish new campus resources and support services for student survivors
  • Ensure that college and university staff meet minimum training standards to address sexual assault cases
  • Create historic transparency requirements to provide students, parents and officials with an accurate picture of the problem and of how campuses are addressing it
  • Require a uniform student disciplinary process across campuses, and coordination with law enforcement
  • Incentivize colleges and universities to address the problem by establishing enforceable Title IX penalties and stiffer penalties for Clery Act violations

Additionally, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf launched the "It's On Us PA" campaign at the end of January. The program is intended to shine light on sexual assaults on college campuses through education about what sexual assault is and how it can affect a survivor.

Wolf launches 'It's on Us PA' to fight sexual violence

The program is in conjunction with the national "It's On Us" campaign started by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Students across Pennsylvania and the nation can take a pledge to recognize that nonconsensual sex is sexual assault, intervene in situations where consent has not been given, identify situations where sexual assault may occur and create an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported.

Colleges, legislators and loved ones can keep this issue at the forefront and perhaps someday, through a combination of transparency, communication and regulation, a new culture of full sexual consent will emerge and the victimization will stop.