One Year Later, a Look at Sexual Assault on Campus
Last year, as part of the Big Issue: The Year in Preview, TakePart looked at the issue of justice for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses and the work being done to combat it. In the year since, activists continued to hold administrations across the country accountable for making schools safer, according to Mahroh Jahangiri, the executive director of Know Your IX, a group that advocates for sexual assault survivors. This included both opposing and supporting pieces of legislation in 2016.
“Safe” Campus Legislation
In 2015, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Safe Campus Act, which would stop college disciplinary systems from investigating sexual assault on campus and would legally require survivors to report the crime to the police if they wanted to see any action taken against their assailants. While supporters of the bill said that campuses are not able to effectively litigate these cases, advocates for sexual assault survivors argued that the bill discourages people from reporting their assaults because many, especially minority women, feel that going to the police is not an option. The bill lost support in 2016 and stalled in the House after more than 200 survivor-focused groups signed a letter to all members, opposing the bill.
“The issue here is that a lot of people rightfully understand that campuses don’t work for a lot of survivors, but a lot of legislators—even those who have good intentions—somehow have faith that the criminal justice system works for survivors, and that’s simply a myth,” Jahangiri said. “It especially makes it difficult for people who come from communities that are routinely targeted and harmed by the police.”
Brock Turner and Mandatory Minimums
Brock Turner, the 22-year-old former Stanford swimmer found guilty of three counts of sexual assault in 2015, was released in September 2016 after serving only three months of a six-month sentence, which was widely considered too lenient. The case inspired legislation that was signed into law in September by California Gov. Jerry Brown requiring blanket mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of sexual assault. While the laws were meant to stop lenient sentencing for rapists, advocates say they are ineffective and target minorities.
“Many communities are still on board for mandatory minimum sentences, coming from an impulse that somehow, prison sentencing is what survivors need for justice,” Jahangiri said. “What students often tell us, among other survivors, what they need for justice is to be able to stay in school, to be able to get an extension a week after a rape.”
Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights
In October, President Obama assigned the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which ensures that rape kits, with more than 100,000 of them going untested owing to lack of funds, are preserved until they can be processed.
“It’s been significant for a lot of people in the country to see people in the highest levels of government treat sexual assault seriously and actually pass legislation aimed to support survivors,” Jahangiri said. “For survivors who are seeking criminal charges going through the criminal process, it certainly is an invaluable tool.”
The Election of Trump
Beyond the president-elect’s comments describing his personal conduct, advocacy groups are worried that the next administration may cut funding to government agencies that investigate campus sexual assault.
“The coverage of gender-based violence in the election and the number of accusations against our new president has been pretty scary to watch,” Jahangiri said. “But the biggest concern here is cutting of funding for the Office [for] Civil Rights in the Department of Education. We’ve heard bits and pieces from parts of the Trump campaign suggesting that much.”
Trump has offered few details on his potential policies to deal with campus sexual assault at the federal level. Sam Clovis, who served as a cochair and policy director for the Trump campaign, told Inside Higher Ed in May that the investigations currently handled by the Office for Civil Rights should be moved to the Justice Department—something that would be necessary if Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress decide to close the Department of Education entirely.