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Activists Organize to Change Campus Culture and Stop Sexual Violence

April 22, 2015

by Amy LaCount & Casey Tran

The statistics are staggering: one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. Once a secret obscured from public view, the prevalence of “date rape,” the term coined in the 1980s, has slowly come to light, with activists drawing further attention to the epidemic in the 1990s.

Now decades later, students are joining together to hold universities accountable for the safety and well being of students. Since activists filed their first Title IX complaint in 2013, more than 95 colleges have been investigated by the Department of Education. Title IX mandates that colleges create safe, discrimination- and violence-free learning environments for all students. The DOE investigation has opened the door for social and policy change around the issue of sexual violence at universities across the country.

New Responses to an Old Problem

Schools are responding to the pressure to change. In 2014, UC Berkeley instituted a mandatory alcohol and sexual violence orientation for all incoming freshmen and transfer students. Students and administrators also started an awareness campaign to promote a culture of violence prevention. These changes are in line with the recommendations of a task force convened by UC’s president for all ten UC schools. A student-led group Greeks Against Sexual Assault at Berkeley provides peer education on consent in fraternities and sororities. The Berkeley Student Cooperative provides similar workshops.

Students protest Brown’s mishandling of a sexual assault case. Photo courtesy of Danielle Perelman

On the East Coast, Brown University is also making some major changes. It hired staff and created campus-wide trainings to address violence. But perhaps the biggest step was creating a sexual assault task force comprising faculty and students, which made recommendations including mandatory violence prevention trainings for students throughout the year, and allocating more resources to existing student-led initiatives such as the Sexual Assault Peer Education program. Brown has agreed to implement many of the task force’s recommendations, making policy changes, such as providing both the accuser and the accused with more clarity on the timeline for resolving complaints, and capping the length of proceedings at 30 days.

Although some universities are making significant policy changes, many activists are still frustrated with the treatment of victims and investigations into sexual assault cases. Brown recently dropped one high-profile case after two female students accused a male student of drugging them, and another male student of sexual assaulting one of the alleged victims. But a lab contracted by the university conducted “faulty” toxicology tests, a critical part of the drugging investigation. The school also concluded that the second male was not responsible for sexual assault.

Angered by the handling of the case, more than 400 students attended a rally to express their distrust. “It is frightening to consider,” said activist Will Furuyama. “Any semblance of justice is still an impossibility for many student survivors.”

Meghan Warner, director of Greeks Against Sexual Assault at UC Berkeley, shared similar concerns with the Brown activists. “We still have an issue of a lot of people thinking that sexual assault is not an issue here, it’s not an issue with their friends,” she said. “They think they already know what consent is, and not understanding that someone cannot give consent when they are intoxicated.”

Learning from a Past Victory

Current efforts at schools like UC Berkeley and Brown take important cues from student activists’ work at Antioch College in the 1990s. A group of women joined together to draft Antioch’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, mandating that verbal consent must be given for all sexual activity. This “affirmative consent” policy, which was mocked at the time, is now being hailed as visionary. The school doesn’t have a method of measuring the impact of the policy, but among the 200-member student body, there have been no reports of sexual assault since 2006.

Antioch’s policy has been a model for schools across the country. The State University of New York has adopted a similar policy covering its 64 campuses, and Harvard is also considering an affirmative consent policy. In October 2014, California became the first state to pass a statewide affirmative consent policy. A related bill currently pending in the legislature would educate California high school students about affirmative consent.

Beyond policy change, activists are also looking to grassroots, student-led solutions. Led entirely by students, This Is Not OK Boston, a coalition of universities in Boston, works to foster safe spaces and to amplify the voices of survivors. So far, Boston University, Northeastern, Harvard, and Tufts have signed on.

National attention to the problem of rape culture hasn’t been so focused since the ‘90s, but there is still a huge gap between the policy changes and how actual cases are handled. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the recent documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which follows two female students who started the wave of Title IX complaints. The film demonstrates that collaboration across campuses works best to galvanize movements, sway national sentiment, and achieve policy change. As the number of Title IX cases rise, colleges will have to respond to the mounting pressure.

Amy LaCount graduated in 2014 from Brown University with a BA in Human Biology and a track in Race & Gender. She also worked with at-risk communities of color in South Providence, RI and started a feminist magazine at Brown.

Casey Tran is Grassroots Coordinator and Communications Associate with Grassroots Change. She is a proud graduate of The Greenlining Institute’s Leadership Academy and received her BA in Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley.