By Mary Kate McGrath - March 9, 2020
In February, the Department of Education announced a new policy on sexual misconduct for college or university campuses that aims to include greater protections for victims of stalking or dating violence, according to the New York Times. The rules will classify domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking as forms of gender discrimination that campuses must address under Title IX, the civil rights policy that prohibits sex discrimination in higher education programs that receive government funding, for the first time.
Prior to the new policy, the DoE interpreted Title IX to require universities to address sexual assault on campus. The most recent guidance will go a step further, adding domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking as behaviors colleges or universities must respond to or they may risk investigation and loss of funding.
The new provision in the Department of Education’s rules represents a push on behalf of victim’s rights advocates and lawyers. Many advocates have noted that while a college or university might consider a situation involving dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking under an umbrella of sexual harassment, safety teams lack formal training in how to address these incidents and classifying them as a civil-rights infraction may be a first step forward. Sage Carson, the manager of the victim’s rights advocacy group Know Your IX, noted how a new provision would encourage college or university campuses to take how sexual violence interrupts victims’ education more seriously, according to the New York Times.
“There’s still a lingering idea that dating violence is an interpersonal issue that two folks need to work on, something that just happens between men and women, rather than seeing it as a form of violence that has an impact on education,” Carson said.
The update to Title IX policy, which will be released in coming weeks, will toughen standards for domestic violence cases from the previous era’s guidance letters. For example, a guidance from 2011 only mentioned dating violence specifically in footnotes. It’s also an important reminder for campus safety managers that preventing or responding to dating violence is an essential part of keeping students safe and continuing education.
Women aged 18-24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence, as per RAINN, and campus dating violence is pervasive. Nearly 11.2% of all undergraduate or graduate students experience rape of sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation. Among graduate or professional students, 8.8% of women and 2.2% of males experience rape or sexual assault, while among undergraduate students, 23.1% of women and 5.4% of men experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation. Nearly 4.2% of students have experienced stalking since entering college.
Statistics also show that incidents of dating violence, stalking, and domestic violence, are on the rise on college campuses. In 2017 - the most recent year for which Clery Data is available - colleges reported 16,977 instances of offenses that fall under the Violence Against Women Act, in comparison with 23,232 reports in 2014, as per the New York Times. Even worse, it’s likely that instances of campus dating violence are underreported - many victims won’t come forward with a report of dating violence for fear of retaliation, or the re-traumatization of going through an interrogative trial process. Leaders on higher education campuses should take a cue from the Department of Education’s new provisions, and take a look at how current response and support systems can be expanded or improved.
For campus safety managers, addressing an instance of domestic violence can be a difference between life and death. In 2018, a college student named Lauren McCluskey, was hunted down on campus, kidnapped, and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Her university allegedly ignored over 20 reports of domestic abuse, which were brought to attention of at least six staff members. The university never tracked reports that McCluskey had been stalked on campus or had bruises on her body, and her parents contend in a lawsuit that the school ignored their daughter’s complaints based on an, “assumption that Lauren, like most women, was unreasonable, hysterical, hypersensitive, paranoid, overreacting to the situation.” In a similar scenario in 2010, 22-year old Yeardley Love was murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend in her dorm room, just weeks before graduation. Love had also reported abusive behavior to campus safety authorities.
Advocates are in part responsible for the new change to Title IX policy having argued successfully that dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking should be in a separate classification to the narrow definition of sexual harassment. The original definition only required campuses “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” that it “denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” Under that requirement, severe and persistent issues of dating violence and stalking, such as McCluskey or Love’s cases, can go unaddressed. Now, since these situations must be reported under the Clery Act, safety leaders will be more likely to take their report seriously and implement a safety protocol.
Failure to investigate or respond to incidents of dating violence can have devastating consequences, and now, under the new provision, will be against the law. Training for campus safety teams about appropriate response to a report of dating violence is essential. In many cases, officers are not well-versed in the appropriate language or behavior to show toward a victim of domestic violence, and if a situation is not offered the appropriate weight or attention it merits, that student might not continue to seek critical help through the school. Provide campus safety officers with a toolkit for responding to sexual assault to ensure that these cases are handled with a multi-tiered, trauma-informed approach.
Establishing a thoughtful response program can be a powerful medium for responding to, preventing, or mitigating these incidents. The modules a campus safety team should go through as part of a “how to respond to sexual assault” training program or toolkit should include information about the neurobiology of trauma, what role alcohol and drugs play in these scenarios, including ensuring students are not penalized for reporting incidents if under the influence of alcohol, adopting a victim-centered response, and forensic interviewing. Information distributed about responding to sexual misconduct should include extensive background on the intersection of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, according to the UT Austin Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
A campus safety app is a great tool for college or university leaders to bolster safety for students who may be worried about their security on campus. A campus safety app allows students to set a virtual guidance while traveling across campus, which is great for those who are concerned about an incident of stalking or feeling unsafe on school grounds. The app allows users to notify close friends or family before traveling across campus, reminding their close confidants to monitor the situation as well.
If the student does not arrive at a given location within the set time, the app will notify campus safety, who will receive important location data from the user’s device and respond to the situation as swiftly as possible. In addition, a student can use the app at any time to reach out to campus safety or local law enforcement.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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