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New York colleges under scrutiny for mishandling sexual harassment claims

On May 1, the Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges it was investigating for inappropriately handling sexual assault claims, including one prominent New York City institution of higher learning. Students at Columbia University and Barnard College have filed a federal complaint alleging violations of Title IX and the Clery Act. Columbia is not the only elite university to be investigated, with several Ivy League schools, the University of California-Berkeley, Emory, the University of Chicago, Amherst, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all making the list.

According to senior White House officials, 20 percent of female students are sexually assaulted in college, usually by someone who she knows and in the first two years of attendance.

At Columbia, according to the 23 students who filed the complaint, the college’s administration allowed perpetrators of sexual assault to remain on campus, discouraged reporting of sexual violence, and discriminated against LGBTQ students in advising, counseling and Greek Life. The campus newspaper, The Blue and White, ran a two-part article on three female students who alleged the same man sexually assaulted them. The three all had similarly negative experiences with the administration’s handling of the incidents.

The New York Times recently ran a front-page article on the story, in which one of the students decided to go fully public on her plight. An article in Slate Magazine subsequently called the students filing suit against Columbia “heroic” for their willingness to face the increased scrutiny of going public.

Title IX and the Clery Act

Title IX became law in 1972. Perhaps Title IX is most known for its provision that requires universities to provide equal opportunities for women in athletics. However, Title IX requires universities to provide equality in any program or activity that receives federal funding. Under Title IX, discrimination based on sex includes sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a letter to colleges in 2011 stating that it interpreted Title IX to mean that mishandling a sexual assault case violated federal law. The Clery Act, also a federal law, requires colleges to report the number of sexual assault cases on campus each year.

Combating sexual assault

Recently, the Obama Administration created a task force to issue recommendations and measure the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. It is believed that sexual assaults are widely underreported. According to one 2002 study, only a small percentage of students rape or attempt rape, but those students often have multiple victims. That study found that each rapist committed or attempted to commit an average of 5.8 rapes each.

Reporting can be intimidating but may help others

Because perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are often repeat offenders, reporting a sexual assault can ultimately save another victim. However, it can be harrowing to report a sexual assault, even to a college’s administration. That is why colleges and universities have an obligation to treat sexual assault victims humanely and fully investigate claims of sexual assault.

Student victims who believe they did not receive fair treatment from their administration do have legal options. Those students should contact an experienced sexual harassment attorney to discuss potential options in holding the school administration accountable.

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