President Obama is like the kid in the back of the classroom waving his arms to get attention. Frustrated by drooping polls and sniping from both left and right, the president keeps throwing out showy but shallow initiatives intended to prove that he’s still in charge, still fired up – and moving the country forward.
Providing “job training grants,” narrowing the faux “pay gap” between men and women, improving “pay transparency” – whatever that is- Americans are mostly ignoring and ignorant of these initiatives. The latest headline-grabber involves the Feds investigating how colleges handle instances of sexual abuse. Is this a problem that requires federal intervention? Or, is it another manufactured crisis aimed at energizing women voters?
Let us stipulate that even one young woman being raped on a college campus is one too many. To the extent that such occurrences are 1) commonplace and 2) not aggressively investigated, it is reasonable to demand action. But, it is not clear that either of those rationales exists. There were only 30 complaints filed with the Department of Education in 2013 asserting sexual assault, as a violation of Title IX – assured civil rights, out of more than 21 million college students.
Though the report compiled by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault states that “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college” it also asserts that “most often, she does not report what happened.” The first step in confronting the challenge, according to the report, is to “determine the extent of it” and to perform a survey to do so. So, we don’t know how widespread the problem is. Also unclear, as The New York Times recently pointed out, “is whether sexual assault is more or less prevalent than in the past…”
The “one in five” claim appears to stem from a survey carried out several years ago at two large universities. According to the Campus Sexual Assault Study prepared for the Institute of Justice in 2007, the portion of women undergraduates reporting that they were victims of sexual assault was actually 13.7 percent; 11 percent of the respondents, or most of those women, were assaulted while “incapacitated” by drugs or alcohol. Another 7 percent experienced “attempted” sexual assault. Three percent of the women reported being forcibly raped.
Another insight from that study: “The number of sexual partners women had since entering college was significantly and positively associated with an increased risk of forced sexual assault.” Raising this issue risks appearing to “blame the victim,” but it seems that certain behaviors – promiscuity and binge drinking - are credibly linked to sexual assault. Should not parents and schools do more to alert young women to the risks of casual sex and intoxication? Isn’t prevention preferable to prosecution?
As important, is this a matter requiring federal intervention? As usual, the possible harm from imposing government mandates and oversight on American institutions and industries that are functioning well – our colleges and universities are the envy of the world – may exceed the likely benefits.
Some damage has already been done. The Department of Education published a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation – the first time such a disclosure has been made voluntarily. The targets include schools where students have filed a complaint with the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, and some where there has been no such charge.
Being stigmatized as a campus where sexual assault is a problem could prompt anxious parents – especially those from Asia, for instance, who historically have favored all-women’s schools like Wellesley - to steer their daughters elsewhere. Funders may also shy away, questioning school leadership. That’s not likely to hurt Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth, which made the list, however. Nor will it deter applications to Emory, USC, Amherst and Swarthmore.
It is clear from reading the responses by the colleges that everyone has already instituted the kinds of procedures and personnel additions that the Department of Education is requiring. It is also clear how disruptive the government’s program could become. The University of Hawaii at Manoa, for example, was targeted for “proactive compliance reviews” even though no complaints have been filed against the school. (It was a terrible winter - maybe someone in the Department of Ed was following the sun?)
In any event, the school reported that “OCR investigators have been on the UH Manoa campus this week meeting with a variety of groups and individuals, including students, faculty, staff, administrators and regents.” How distracting for students. What was the point?
The school’s interim President David Lassner told the media they have “a new system-wide Steering Committee to share and collaborate on strategies, approaches, practices and procedures…. and our new budget process directs our chancellors to identify the additional resource investments needed to ensure safety on their campuses."
In other words, schools are paying attention. So – good for the activists who have raised concerns. But, as ever, the federal government is poised to overreach, requiring even more costly personnel additions, compliance, training efforts and audits to schools struggling to provide scholarships and keep programs intact even as costs spiral upward.
Perhaps more useful would be for schools to attack the dangerous binge drinking that is associated with sexual violence and that is quite often illegal. Reported assaults of undergrads usually involve friends or boyfriends and most occur when both partners are drunk. This makes accusations of sexual abuse difficult to substantiate, and is a leading reason that many charges are eventually dropped.
One such incident that attracted the attentions of the Feds involves a young student named Tucker Reed, who has blogged about her “rape” by her boyfriend Andrew Bean in 2010 – a charge that was investigated and subsequently dropped by her school. Both were undergrads at USC, and both were drunk when the alleged attack took place.
Still in a relationship with Bean nearly two years later, Reed openly recorded her boyfriend apologizing for what he did. In that conversation, she claims that when she got into bed with him, drunk and naked, she was expecting to satisfy him without actual intercourse. She suggests that she wanted to wait to have sex and that if he actually loved her, he would have abided by her desire. She laments that “this 'hook-up culture' we’ve let develop will continue to spiral out of control.” Indeed.
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