Sexual Assault Remains Major Issue in US Higher Education

18 January 2020

Few people understand the issue of sexual violence at colleges and universities in the United States better than Faith Ferber.

Ferber began her studies at American University, or AU, in Washington, D.C, in the autumn of 2013. By the following spring, the school was facing a major problem.

Messages between members of an unapproved all-male student group were published online, and gained widespread public attention. The messages showed the members openly discussing their involvement in illegal activities, including rape.

Ferber soon took action. She formed a group called Students Against Sexual Violence and organized protests. She got thousands of students to sign a statement demanding that school officials take action.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 photo from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evans, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. They filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 photo from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evans, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. They filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College.

AU later dismissed 18 students for their involvement in the unapproved group. But before that took place, Ferber became a victim herself. In February 2015, she was sexually assaulted at a party.

She told VOA that, at first, AU officials seemed supportive of her and her case against her attacker. But after the investigation was over and the school began deciding what action to take, things changed.

Ferber said AU officials asked her to sign an agreement saying she would not discuss the details of her case with anyone. Ferber's attacker admitted responsibility, but the school did not dismiss that student as she requested.

She then learned that AU had violated Department of Education rules governing how colleges and universities should deal with sexual assault. So she contacted the agency, which eventually led to an investigation into the school. That investigation is ongoing.

Ferber continues to fight sexual violence through her work with Know Your IX. The organization teaches college students how to hold their schools accountable. Ferber argues that colleges and universities in the U.S. cannot let fear of critical media attention prevent them from supporting abuse victims. And, she adds, conversations about sex and sexual violence in America need to change.

"From a very young age we teach women that it's their responsibility to not get raped or to not be attacked," said Ferber. "That combined with a hesitancy to discuss sex and consent with young Americans, the result is that kids end up at college living ... on their own for the first time, barely adults ... with very, very little information, if not misinformation, on ... healthy sexual relationships."

Some schools are trying to better understand the problem. In October, the Association of American Universities, or AAU, released the findings of its 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct.

This study questioned nearly 182,000 students at 33 public research universities across the country about their experiences with sexual wrongdoing. It also asked them what they knew about their schools' policies and support systems in place for victims.

The study showed that there have been no notable changes in rates of sexual assaults at U.S. colleges and universities since 2015. That was the first year of the AAU survey.

There were some notable improvements. There has been a rise in the number of students saying they understood the meaning of consent, as well as what can be considered assault. And more students reported knowing how to report an incident to school officials.

However, this year's AAU study found one major issue continues: many victims are still not reporting incidents. The number of victims who inform their schools or local police remains low, at around 15 percent.

"Although we've made progress, there is much work to do," AAU President Mary Sue Coleman wrote in a statement. "We now know that schools should continue to concentrate their educational efforts and resources on incoming first-year ... students, since they are clearly more vulnerable ... than their older classmates."

Colby Bruno is the senior legal counsel with the Victim Rights Law Center, which offers legal support to people affected by sexual assault. She said the increased knowledge of consent is a promising sign. And the fact that schools are willing to take part in this kind of research shows they seem willing to take action.

But, Bruno says, the situation on college campuses will not improve unless students fully understand consent – and schools have strong policies they are willing to enforce.

"If a school ignores or if there is a problem with rape and sexual assault on campus... then it's not just a problem for the individuals who have been assaulted," she said. "It's a larger problem for the whole student body, because there is a hostile environment that exists on that campus."

Bruno and Ferber agree that what schools also need is guidance from the government. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education, under President Donald Trump, changed guidelines established by former President Barack Obama. Those guidelines advised institutions that receive federal financial aid on how to best deal with incidents of sexual assault.

Bruno and Ferber say the changes have weakened support for victims.

I'm ­Dorothy Gundy.

And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

assault(ed) – v. to violently attack someone or something

accountableadj. required to explain actions or decisions to someone

hesitancyn. the condition of being slow to act or speak especially because you are nervous or unsure about what to do

consentn. permission for something to happen or be done

surveyn. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

concentratev. to cause attention, efforts, or strength to be used or directed for a single purpose

vulnerableadj. open to attack, harm, or damage

campus(es) – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

institution(s) – n. an established organization