Education Law

Lawsuits, civil-rights complaints help bring attention to college sexual assaults


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Screenshot from the NotAlone.gov website.

The problem of sexual assault on college campuses is getting increased attention in part because of lawsuits filed against universities.

The New York Times cites the suits, which increasingly are producing large damage awards, as one of three factors bringing attention to the issue. The other factors are increased civil rights enforcement by the Obama administration and the work of student activist groups.

On Monday, the Obama administration released recommendations to universities for prevention and handling of sexual assaults. On Tuesday, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault formally released a report (PDF) calling on colleges to increase transparency, to train victim advocates and to survey students about the prevalence of sexual assault, report the Washington Post and USA Today. Enforcement data will be posted on a new website called NotAlone.gov.

Students seeking more attention for the issue have organized protests, communicated through social media and lobbied lawmakers, the New York Times says. “Victims of sexual assault, once stigmatized, are gaining courage to challenge institutions publicly, representing a generational and cultural shift,” according to the newspaper.

The lawsuits and civil-rights complaints are based on Title IX of the Education Amendments, the Times says. The U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standards for such cases in the 1990s, leading to several high-profile wins for plaintiffs in the 2000s.

The Education Department sent a letter to universities in 2011 emphasizing that complaints about university handling of sexual assaults could be filed with the department’s Office of Civil Rights. Thirty complaints relating to sexual assault were filed with the office last year, and 30 more were filed the first four months of this year, the Times says.

On Monday, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that Tufts University in Massachusetts had violated anti-discrimination law in its handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints, the Washington Post says. The school issued a statement saying it was “surprised and disappointed” by the finding.

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