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US colleges under the spectre of sexual assault

US colleges under the spectre of sexual assault
From Al Jazeera - September 19, 2017

New York, NY - Taylor Moore, a 20-year-old college student from Arkansas, wants to be able to attend class, stay in the dorms, or go to the school's library without having to encounter the student who sexually assaulted her - rights US anti-gender discrimination laws, known as Title IX, are supposed to protect.

Schools receiving federal funds - this essentially includes all of the about 5,000 US colleges - must protect the rights of those who have been sexually assaulted or harassed. But what they need to do to adequately protect those students has long been a subject of debate.

Betsy DeVos, the US secretary of education, has vowed to overhaul guidelines introduced by the Obama administration in 2011.Survivors of sexual assault had hailed those guidelines for making it easier for those who had been sexually assaulted to come forward and get on-campus justice, which is unrelated to criminal prosecution. But others have derided the guidelines as trampling on the rights of accused students.

The effects of sexual assault are profound, Moore told Al Jazeera.

"[My attacker] saw me naked, he touched my naked body," she said, adding, of the possibility of seeing her assailant, "it makes me feel small and very insecure and just violated all over again."

The Obama administration guidelineswere introduced after decades of surveyscontinually found that about one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. They also accompanied a gradual shift in social awareness about what constitutes rape and sexual assault to include psychological coercion, exemplified by the FBI's 2012 removalof the word "force" from its definition of rape.

"It was so hard to come forward with what happened to me and actually tell somebody," said Moore, "but I knew that something would be done under the guidelines."

DeVos, in a speechat George Mason University in early September, promised to protect the rights of sexual assault survivors, as well as other students. But, she said,the accused are being mistreated in campus "kangaroo courts" under the current guidelines.

"One rape is one too many. One assault is one too many," she said, later adding, "one person denied due process is one too many."

During the speech, DeVos had referenced Moore's own story: In a dorm room at Southern Arkansas University, Moore's boyfriend's roommate, naked, tried to force himself on her. It was during finals in Moore's first semester at the school. Her boyfriend looked on, in apparent support of the attack.

Moore had met DeVos, along with several other survivors, in July. She told her about the attack and her school's inadequate response.

DeVos's words and actions were conflicting, Moore said.

"It meant a lot that in her speech [DeVos] talked about my story because that reassured me and lets me know that she was listening," said Moore. "But her rescinding of the guidelines, it does not send a good message to survivors. It does not make me feel very safe on my campus."

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The 'battle' of coming forward

While the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported, the number of recorded incidents on college campuses jumped from 4,000 in 2012 to 5,000 in 2013, a 2016 reportby the National Center for Education Statistics showed. Many survivor advocates believe more people were willing to come forward after the guidelines were released.

Carly Mee, a lawyer with the survivors' rights group, SurvJustice, which also represented Moore, said the guidelines, while only technically a clarification of current laws, had a thawing effect for those who were dealing with the trauma of campus sexual assault. Any guidelines that are less firm, or an administration that seems less likely to enforce them, could change that, she said.

"It gave survivors a tool to bring to schools that says 'Hey, this really clearly says what you need to be doing, and you are not doing it,'" Mee said.

If criteria in the guidelines were not met, federal funds could be withheld from schools, and furthermore, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights would investigate complaints that a school was not following the guidelines and publish a public list of schools being investigated.

Most importantly, said Mee, who was sexually assaulted during her first week of college in California in 2009, the guidelines made survivors feel like they would not be fighting for their civil rights alone. Mee said she was left traumatised and confused after she was attacked because it was different from the "stranger in the bushes" narrative of rape she had been warned about.

"It's such a battle to think about. Is it even worth coming forward? Is anything actually going to come of this? Am I going to be dragged through the mud by the accused student?" she said. "The dear colleague letter made it so survivors did not have to carve out that [civil rights] space any more, it was already there, and they just had to take that tool and bring it forward."

READ MORE: By the numbers - Sexual violence in high school

Overcorrecting the problem?

The Obama era guidelines were quickly criticised, including by professors of law and academic professionals. The guidelines required schools to use a preponderance of evidence standard when deciding if an attack occurred. This meant over 50 percent of the evidence must indicate an individual committed the assault - a standard lower than in criminal proceedings, but the same as those used in civil rights cases.

Under a spectre of sexual assault

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