A few thoughts on assault policy

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

For the past few weeks, the university’s revised sexual harassment policy has garnered significant attention, and significant criticism, from areas around campus. Critics, including myself, have attacked the new policy for reporting requirements that threaten to promulgate unsubstantiated rumors, while putting the burden to report on individuals who are unaffiliated with any interested party. The revisions to the policy come after a “Dear Colleagues” letter, distributed by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, called for such increased requirements to help improve the problem of sexual harassment on college campuses.

Recently, editorials published here and and in commentary at the Undergraduate Student Government open forum on the policy highlighted the reporting requirements, as well as the perceived over-broadness of the policy. In total, the policy threatens to create a chilling effect, encouraging those who have been assaulted to not report or confide in friends because of the fear of someone else, unconnected to the victim, reporting the issue. Again, the policy gives each and every person who hears about an incident, whether from the victim or through a rumor, taking place on or off campus, a punishable responsibility to report the incident to the proper university authorities.

Among the midst of this criticism though, there is another example to keep in mind. Earlier this week, the New Republic published an article, almost a year in the making, profiling the epidemic of sexual assault and victim-blaming at Patrick Henry College, a small Christian school in the hills of Virginia. The article profiles three separate incidences of violence and the university’s refusal to respond and, in some cases, decisions to blame the victims in favor of keeping the school’s good name intact. The author of the piece seems to pin the blame primarily on the Dean of Student Affairs at the college, as she was the individual who “counseled” victims out of reporting their incidents to police.

This investigation and “gotcha” journalism is nothing new, but the spread of these stories highlights a troublesome pattern on campuses around the country. That when I first read the New Republic article and emerged unaffected shows how regular these stories have become. Familiarity for these ideas is not a good thing.

Some will highlight cases like that at Patrick Henry for why the sexual harassment policy should be revised, updated and strengthened. But that is not the case. By and large, these horrific incidents of violence occur on campuses that reject the federal requirements already in place; places like Patrick Henry, which forego all federal cash, including student loans, or those where ideology triumphs over the safety of students (Liberty University, BYU and Bob Jones, for example). Such schools normally have strict conduct guidelines in place and attempt to control the out-of-the-classroom activities of all students. Requirements, such as a sexual conduct pledge, chapel services (in the case of religious schools), and 11 p.m. curfews are among the most common examples.

This, however, is a very limited set of cases. Most universities, especially most of the ones where students at Case Western Reserve University once applied, do not impose such draconian requirements on their students. Likewise, most of these universities accept the federal funds that others choose to forego, and are thus regulated by federal requirements. Some go beyond the minimum required by the government, and most provide multiple reporting options with differing levels of confidentiality to suit the comfort level of any victim.

It would be idiotic to assume that these requirements are all the necessary means to end sexual assault on campuses. In fact, over the last few years, sexual violence has increased. By some estimates, one in five women will experience sexual assault in college. But the answer is not increased requirements. If the schools where requirements are nonexistent and victim-blaming is ascendant have violence equal to that of the regulated campuses, will further regulation improve the problem?

The simple answer to that question is no. It is apparent that increased requirements and regulations do not prevent violence. Assaults occur to the same rate at Patrick Henry College as they do at The Ohio State University, Carnegie Mellon or even CWRU. The level of institutional reporting of incidents, seemingly, has little to do with violence. Thus, our increased and more stringent requirements promise no remedy to the “epidemic of sexual violence” on college campuses, to use Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity Marilyn S. Mobley’s language.

Education is not the answer either. You can only teach people to behave so much. Instead, the community needs to come together. There needs to be a discussion about violence and what is right and wrong. The bathroom posters are nice, but their effectiveness is fleeting, especially once they’ve been covered in obscenities, straight from the minds of bored, immature college students. No, we need a conversation. Together, there might be a solution. Requirements from higher-ups hardly do the same. It might sound cheesy, but its the way we have to go.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, vice President of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.