Sexual assaults, #MeToo, and a new federal policy roil college campuses

            The year 2017 may go down in history as the year that sexual violence and harassment came out of the closet.

            On Oct. 5, the worst-kept secret in Hollywood — Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual predation— was revealed by the New York Times. Like a wildfire, the story revived a “MeToo” movement created 10 years ago by black activist, Tarana Burke, its new hashtag uncovering decades of mistreatment and criminal assault of women by men.

            Dozens of women told their stories and powerful men in entertainment, politics, sports, religion and business — from the White House to the Olympics — were exposed.

            The furor also helped expose widespread sexual violence and unwanted advances on college campuses. It soon became clear that except for the high-profile gang-rape stories that made headlines, college sexual misconduct was underreported, often concealed, and shockingly pervasive.

            College women are three times more likely to be assaulted than the average American woman, according to a 2014 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice.

            In a 2015 study by the Association of American Universities, 23 percent of undergraduate women experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Nearly 9 percent of graduate women reported sexual violence. Women on campuses were twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as robbed, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

            More than five percent of male undergraduates had been raped or sexual assaulted. College men were five times more likely than nonstudents of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.

            The same AAU study found that 21 percent of transgender, gender-queer or gender-nonconforming college students had been sexually assaulted.

            Perhaps even more chilling, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 95 percent of campus rapes are unreported.

            Neither the statistics nor the #MeToo movement swayed U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who believes that accusers in campus cases are treated unfairly. On Sept. 21, 2017 she reversed an Obama-era policy that required colleges to use a low standard of proof — “preponderance of evidence” — to discipline accused students. Under the new standard, cases are to be decided using “clear and convincing evidence.” According to the New York Times, the difference is this: 

            The “preponderance” rule means colleges must find a student responsible if it is more likely than not that the student conducted a sexual act without the partner’s consent. A “clear and convincing” case means it is highly probable the misconduct occurred.

            Critics of the DeVos policy have argued that fewer assaults will be reported. But dozens of students have sued their colleges, claiming their rights were violated under the Obama rules.

            In January several civil rights organizations sued DeVos and asked that the new rule be thrown out.

            According to Vice News, 25 major schools have decided to ignore the rule change, even as the issue continues to roil campuses nationwide.

            Perhaps the most pervasive case of sexual assault played itself out in a Michigan courtroom where Larry Nassar, the former Team USA gymnastics doctor and faculty member of Michigan State University, was confronted by 156 girls and women who told of being assaulted while in his care. Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison. In the aftermath the school president resigned, and Michigan legislators vowed to bypass campus police on future sexual abuse cases on campus.

            As the spring semester began universities and legislatures nationwide were re-examining campus policies on sexual assault. In Texas, victims of assault asked the Texas legislature to clarify and codify the meaning of “consent.”

            At Utah State University, students studied and debated the “rape culture pyramid,” which suggests that “boys will be boys” and locker room banter eventually supports and excuses stalking, groping and molestation.

            Meanwhile, campus assault survivors were feeling left behind by the Me Too Movement, according to an analysis by Refinery 29.

By Jim Carrier