Colleges need to do a better job dealing with sexual assaults involving students - The Buffalo News
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Colleges need to do a better job dealing with sexual assaults involving students

There is a growing effort involving social justice practices, social media and the kind of activism not seen in years that has resulted in groups of brave women speaking out against sexual assault on college campuses.

Their selfless activism may prevent some young women from experiencing the terror of a sexual assault in a place where they should be insulated from such horror.

Just as those who serve the military, college students should not have to live under the threat of sexual assault by their colleagues. And if an assault occurs, then the institutions whose job it is to protect their students should work quickly and effectively in bringing those responsible to justice, and provide care and compassion to the victim.

This has not been the case on college campuses, a situation that has created a wave of student activists, many of them victims of sexual assault, working to change the mindset of those in charge. That activism is having an effect.

One reason for optimism is attention from President Obama and the White House, which announced a new federal task force to address sexual assault on college campuses. The Education Department recently revealed 55 colleges and universities, big and small, public and private, are being investigated over their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

The Obama administration officially released recommendations to universities to help prevent and police sexual assault, and several bills in Congress are expected.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been working extremely hard to change an intractable military justice system’s lack of response in sexual assault cases, has agreed to work on legislation and appeal to the White House on behalf of an organization called End Rape on Campus.

Universities have had the obligation to respond to sexual harassment and assault complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But students have not felt they were being heard, and when they tried to go through the process some found it cumbersome and often humiliating, and seemed to favor the attacker. Who would blame them for their silence?

In 2011, the Department of Education warned universities that they needed to create better procedures and to start following the law. Along those lines, the department emphasized that complaints could be pursued through its Office of Civil Rights.

Social media has also helped. Sexual assault victims who might otherwise have felt alone find courage and someone to talk to. Moreover, they are able to access a readily available source of information on how to proceed in obtaining justice.

Alcohol may be one factor in some campus sexual assaults. But the use of alcohol does not make sexual assault any less of a crime, and does not absolve colleges of their responsibility to take the appropriate action.

Sexual assault is never justified. Educational institutions seem to be a good place to teach that lesson.

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