We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual violence complaints. The investigations were launched under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law best known for guaranteeing women and girls equal access to school sports. We talk with the head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
- Stacey Malone Executive Director, Victims Rights Law Center
- Catherine Lhamon Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, search and seizure and a smart phone. The Supreme Court asks whether it's constitutional for police to search your iPhone without a warrant. But first, sexual assault and harassment on college campuses. Last week, the US Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for their handling of sexual violence complaints.
MS. JEN GOLBECKThe decision to release the names of the schools is considered unprecedented. And the method of the investigation also raised eyebrows. The office for civil rights, at the Department of Education, used Title IX of the Education Amendments, Provisions commonly associated with college athletics and fights over equal access for girls in sports. Joining us to discuss is Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.
MS. CATHERINE LHAMONHi Jen. Thanks so much for having me.
GOLBECKSo, since Title IX of the Education Amendment passed in 1972, it's really been credited with expanding the opportunities for girls to play sports at every level, from college on down. But the Department of Education has made a new push to use Title IX to address sexual violence. Can you start by explaining what Title IX is, and why it's being used this way?
LHAMONWell, sure. Title IX is fundamental sex discrimination statute that should protect all of our girls and all of our boys in school, so that there is no gender based discrimination in their educational opportunities. So, the athletics use has been something we're quite pleased about, and quite pleased that there's so much notoriety for it, but since 1972, when Title IX passed, it has also covered, for example, sexual violence, as well as inequitable access to schooling on a variety of fronts, for girls and for boys.
LHAMONSo, the new push, as you put it, is something I'm really proud of, from this administration. This administration is the first ever to call out sexual violence as a civil rights issue. But of course, Title IX has always covered the topic and it's something that we've wanted our schools, our colleges and universities, as well as our K-12 institutions, to be able to satisfy for all of their students.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. How do you think universities should address sexual violence and do you think it's a good idea for the federal government and the Department of Education to get involved in the issue? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us at email@example.com. Catherine, as you mentioned, this has been a major issue on college campuses for decades. And a number of student activists and survivors have been lobbying the White House and the Department of Education to take this kind of action for a long time. Can you describe the problem that you're trying to solve?
LHAMONWell, the problem we're trying to solve is profound inequity in access to educational opportunity, and, in particular, for young women, but also for young men, on our college campuses. The best available research is that one in five young women will be sexually assaulted during the four years of a traditional higher education time span. And that's obviously far, far too many. As the White House has put it, one is too many. And we need to make sure that all of our students are able to go to school and expect to be able to learn, unfettered by sexual aggression and sexual assault at the school.
LHAMONSo, it's really key for us to make sure that our colleges and universities, as well as our K-12 institutions, understand what the law is, understand the ways that they need to communicate disapprobation for sexual violence and sexual harassment on their campuses. The ways that they need to investigate when complaints come forward. To identify instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment, that they should provide interim relief to survivors, and make sure that they have a fair and full process to evaluate whether sexual violence has existed. And to provide prompt and equitable remedies.
LHAMONSo, these are really key components of what our educational institutions need to provide to all of their students. And I'm so thrilled that the President and the Vice-President have shown such leadership to say that we have to change our campus conversations and make sure that all of our students can be safe at school.
GOLBECKAnd, as a college professor myself, this is an issue that, you know, I find myself, now, talking to people a lot about. And one thing that I find I have to explain a lot is that sexual assault is a criminal issue, right? This is something you can go to the police about, and there's a criminal case. So, could you explain the role that the university has investigating these crimes, because it's different to the one that law enforcement plays. And I think a lot of our listeners may not be clear on this distinction between what law enforcement does, what role plays the university plays, and how the overlap.
LHAMONIt sure is different. The criminal process should be a separate and independent process, and something that should be ongoing at the same time that a school is doing its own investigation. So, the role for the school is to protect the educational opportunity for students, and make sure that all students are able to learn at school. And there's a separate and independent process that is the criminal adjudication process. But the school's job is to make sure that there's not something that's impeding the learning process for students at the school. And to make sure that all students can be safe at school.
GOLBECKThe 55 colleges and universities that came out on the list, that was published last week, those are investigations that have been ongoing. But this was the first time that your office has published a list of schools under investigation. What made you decide to go public with the list?
LHAMONYou know, the President and the Vice President really used a lot of leadership on that, to say that they wanted us, they wanted government, to be more transparent about what we're doing in this space. And to make sure that we identify the places that we are investigating, that we take the issue out of the shadows and support survivors in coming forward and using their school's processes and making sure that we use leadership to say to our colleges and institutions, that we really do want them to come into compliance with the law and make sure that they are satisfying their obligations to their students.
LHAMONIt obviously was a very hard call for us, about whether to release the list of institutions that we're investigating, not least because the fact of an investigation does not mean that an institution has violated the law. It just means that we are in the process of evaluating whether it has violated the law. So, we had already elected to make public the resolutions that we reached with colleges and universities, as well as with other institutions about sexual violence and other topics. And those resolution identify where we have found an institution to have violated the law and what we've asked them to do instead.
LHAMONBut the list of investigations themselves felt important to release, because it begins the conversation about whether there are issues out of campus. It allows more people to be able to come forward and share their information with us. And, as I mentioned, it takes this issue out of the shadows and makes sure that we have sunlight on it, so that we can talk about it.
GOLBECKThe 55 colleges on this list include a handful of local institutions, including catholic university William and Mary and the University of Virginia. But unfortunately, most, if not all American colleges and universities have to deal with cases of sexual violence. So, why focus on these 55 investigations?
LHAMONWell, certainly our focus is not limited to these 55 institutions, right? I mean, we've put out guidance now twice in the life of this administration, about the topic. And that guidance goes to every college and university around the country, as well as to all K-12 institutions, to ask them to make sure that their policies are compliant with the law, and that they change their practices to the extent that their practices need changes. And we know, independent of our investigations, that many institutions have made changes to come into compliance with the law, just on receipt of that guidance.
LHAMONSo, we're thrilled with those places who are changing their practices on their own. Thrilled with those places that have reviewed that guidance and determined that their practices are already fully compliant. But where we have a complaint, that comes to us, that needs to be investigated or we have an independent reason to evaluate a school, because we are concerned that something may not be fully compliant with the law on that campus. Then we open an investigation. And these 55 schools represent the institutions currently where those facts are true.
GOLBECKI'd like to bring Stacey Malone into the conversation now. She's Executive Director of the Victims Rights Law Center. Joining us by phone, Stacey, thanks for joining us.
MS. STACEY MALONEHi, thank you for having me.
GOLBECKSo, I'd like to pose a question to both of you. We got an email from Brian, who says does the speaker have any research that pinpoints where on campuses the sexual assaults are most prevalent, so that we may advise where students should pay close attention? Either of you have any insights for that question?
LHAMONSure. I do. My view is that all students should be attentive at all areas of campus, on and off. It's, you know, vigilance is the smartest and safest way to operate. But there are not particular corners of campus where sexual violence is more or less prevalent. We all need to be sure that we're making sure that all of students are safe.
GOLBECKStacey, did you want to comment on that?
MALONEYes, having represented many victims of sexual assault on college campuses throughout Massachusetts, we definitely know that there are certain pockets where sexual assault has a tendency to happen. And those are places where alcohol or drugs are used as a tool. So, for example, off campus parties, fraternity parties, bus trips, international field trips. So, really, wherever students kind of congregate in packs. We also know in dormitories. Students really are targets, unfortunately, on campuses, because they are that prime age range between 12 and 24 where sexual violence is at its height.
GOLBECKAnd Stacey, I'd like to get you to weigh in on this. You've been listening to the conversation so far, and from your position, can you give us your thoughts on this policy change from the White House and also the list that was released last week?
MALONEHonestly, it is absolutely fantastic. We are so delighted about what the White House and the Department of Education has done to really begin and kick start this conversation about sexual violence on college campuses. We've been waiting a long time. We know sexual violence happens on all campuses. We know it's one in five women. We know it impacts men, boys, transgender, gay and lesbian -- really, it impacts everybody on a college campus. So, we couldn't be happier that the White House, the administration is taking this issue so seriously.
MALONEIt's interesting. We've been asked a lot about this question of the 55 schools that are published. We think it's great. We know that campus sexual assault is happening, and schools have to be held accountable. It can't just be about how great their policies are. It has to be about their implementation. And the next step is enforcement. So to have colleges and universities kind of outed that they're being investigated is fantastic. It will, as Miss Lhamon said, it will actually allow survivors to come forward on campus. It provides an open dialogue at that school that will make survivors see their school is taking it seriously.
MALONETheir federal government is taking it seriously. And that they should report and get access to services, so that they can have access to a really great education.
GOLBECKSome people have argued that universities have incentives to suppress reports of sexual violence on campus. They can be sued by assailants, if they discipline those assailants, especially when there's no criminal conviction. And increased reporting can create the image that they have a dangerous campus. So, Stacey, I'd like to start with you and then pass this to Catherine. How do you think Title IX enforcement from the federal government can help overcome this issue?
MALONEFirst of all, we know that rumor that assailants can sue schools, but victims can also sue schools. So, that's just an option, honestly, that I buy. I think that Title IX is such a great tool that can be used by the Office of Civil Rights and individual survivors to really access their education. So, I don't really kind of buy that, that threat that perpetrators might sue the school. We just don't see it that often, and really, the obligation of the school is to give all students on campus, not only access to their education, but to be on a safe campus.
GOLBECKCatherine, your thoughts?
LHAMONAnd Jen, I just want to say that through the White House Task Force, we heard from many thousands of people around the country, including many, many college administrators and general councils and alumni associations, and, as well as students, and faculty and survivors.
LHAMONBut a pretty consistent theme was how much colleges and universities want to come into compliance with the law and want to make sure that they are fully serving their students. So, it's certainly true that perverse incentives can exist, and that it's possible in the world that there would be institutions who would want to swipe under the rug, an issue of a student or a series of students who were being assaulted on campus.
LHAMONBut there are many, many instances of many, many colleges and universities who absolutely want to do the right thing by their students. And we want to support them, and then do away with the disincentives that exist where they do.
GOLBECKSo, for those of us who aren't familiar with this process, Catherine, you first on this. If a student comes forward to say -- a girl comes forward, she says she was drinking, she was at a fraternity party, she was raped. She tells the university about this. Can you explain the process that the university should go through, what exactly they do when this allegation emerges?
LHAMONWell, the university should first make sure that the student who had come forward is safe and make sure that that student has the support that that student needs in the healing process. Then ask questions, try to get more information about what has happened, figure out if there's an ongoing threat to other students and to that student at the school. Make sure that that -- to the extent that an ongoing threat exists that the students are safe.
LHAMONThen make sure that there's a full and fair investigative process that is speedy to determine what has happened, to determine what needs to be done at the campus. And then take appropriate and swift steps to make sure that that student is safe and that the perpetrator, to the extent that there actually is a perpetrator, is punished appropriately.
GOLBECKAnd, Stacey, I'd like your thoughts on that last point because we've seen a lot of students coming forward, especially women with their stories of sexual assault on campus and, frankly, how poorly it was handled. Whether they were told to just forgive and forget or maybe they were told to take a leave of absence until their assailant graduated. So what do you see as the appropriate response a university should take if they find that someone did undertake an act of sexual violence?
MALONEI mean, I represent victims of sexual assault. So, of course, I'm going to want schools to find perpetrators accountable. We have seen many institutions where they have found that the perpetrators responsible for the sexual assault and then maybe they will suspend him for three weeks for the semester, maybe they will, you know, tell him he can't have contact with that individual and that's just not enough.
MALONEI think what this dialogue allows us to do is to let schools know that even though they have great intentions and they want their schools to be safe, they need to do more. And the first thing that they can do, make sure they come through and the second thing that they can do is hold these perpetrators accountable. They're on their campuses and we know the perpetrators have an average of four to six sexual assaults throughout their lifetime.
MALONESo if you know someone and you've decided that they're held responsible for the sexual assault, you want to make sure you hold them accountable because if you don't, you're then setting them loose throughout campus to assault other people.
GOLBECKUniversities all have legal offices, but many of them are also creating Title IX compliance offices that are separate if they didn't have those offices already. Stacey, I'll start with you. Can you help us understand how a Title IX compliance office might handle issues of sexual misconduct differently than, say, a university's internal legal office?
MALONEDefinitely. They really have two totally different functions. You know, legal counsel is responsible for the university itself, but the Title IX coordinator is really charged with following through with that process. So understanding all of the obligations of just Title IX and making sure that it's implemented properly on their campus. The Title IX coordinator should really be the kind of repository for all information on campus.
MALONESo whether or not a sexual assault victim wants to be confidential or if they want to report all of the information and all of the facts about the incident, that's how my coordinator can then have that information to know what's happening with violence on campus. And that's a very different from the role of general counsel.
GOLBECKCatherine, did you want to comment?
LHAMONI couldn't agree more with that and just want to underscore Stacey's points by saying that it's critical for every campus to have a Title IX coordinator and to advertise to the students who the Title IX coordinator is so that the students know to whom to go to the extent they have concerns about actions that are taking place in the campus.
MALONEAnd we're seeing many schools create now deputy Title IX coordinators, which are the great thing to do because we don't want just to have one person that's approachable on campus. We want students to know that they have people at their fingertips who they may know and trust in departments throughout campus that they can have access to for a report. So it's really important that not only is that published, but the jobs that they do and what they so.
MALONESo that way, a teenager, an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old can read that and understand that. Right now, it's so complicated they can't even figure out who to go to. And we believe that this White House response really is developed to help students on campus.
GOLBECKLet's take a call now from Mohammed in College Park. Mohammed, you're on the air, go ahead.
MOHAMMEDYes, hi. How are you?
MOHAMMEDI live right next to a college campus and, you know, in the evening sometimes I come late from work. And you see some of these kids, males and females both, are so drunk, some of them fall on the street. And the police have to come and get them out of the street. I think it's a very good point to start teaching them how to drink responsibly, because if they're already drunk, they cannot really know what's going on.
MOHAMMEDThere's a lot of bad people out there on the streets that waits for opportunities like that. So I think we should really teach them that drinking too much, to a point where you lose conscience will subject to robbery, to rape, to all kinds of crimes. So they should really drink responsibly. And I'm speaking on both women and -- girls and boys. I mean, see them passed out on the sidewalk, on the streets.
MOHAMMEDThey cross the streets drunk. So I think you should concentrate, too, about them drinking and use of drugs heavily, which makes them lose conscience and they are subjected to these crimes.
LHAMONSo, Mohammed, as a mom, I certainly would prefer to see fewer students drinking during college, and so I share your concern. I do want to say that alcohol is not an excuse for sexual assault. It doesn't justify it. Alcohol use is never related to whether...
MOHAMMEDI agree with you, absolutely. But there's a lot of un-responsible people that take that for an advantage. Now there's a lot of sick people out here. There's a lot of crimes, there's a lot of criminals out there and they wait for the opportunity for you to be unconscious. So if you want to be unconscious -- I have two kids in college -- if you want to be...
GOLBECKOkay, Mohammed, I'm sorry, we're running out of time. I appreciate your call and your point. Thank you for calling in. And we're getting to the end of our time. I'd like to thank both of our guests, Stacey Malone, executive director for the Victims Rights Law Center and Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Thanks for joining us to talk about this really important issue.
LHAMONThanks so much, Jen. Thanks, Stacey.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck. And we'll continue our conversation, picking up with "Search, Seizure and Smartphones" after the break. Stay tuned.
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