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#306: Campus Sexual Assault: Making the College Responsible

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Katie Gentile describes a legal and campus-wide approach toward preventing sexual violence: Ideally this approach creates an epistemological shift as sexual and intimate partner violence should be recast not as private issues between students but as significant problems that the university/college have a legal (and ethical) responsibility not just to address, but to prevent. This approach is challenging not least because it disrupts Western culture’s comfortable split between public and private spaces. Here colleges would have to find ways to influence the private spaces of interpersonal interactions and actively prevent certain behaviors occurring in those spaces.
This tide of prevention and intervention was only heightened by the media attention on Yale University that was facing huge fines based on Title IX and the now public list of colleges and universities that are being investigated by the Department of Education.
The policy I was involved in creating defined and identified sexual violence, campus points of entry for students, how cases would be investigated, and disciplinary steps that could be taken. This might seem cut and dried, but consider the seemingly simple part of identifying entry points. We knew from experience that students sought out the assistance of professors, counselors, coaches, mentors in student activities, women’s centers, security personnel, and their student peers. This meant that all these constituents needed to be trained on how to identify cases of sexual violence and to intervene at their respective levels of responsibility (i.e. a counselor would intervene differently from a security officer). Additionally, training curriculum needed to address potential biases about different forms of sexual violence (including trainee’s potential tendencies toward victim-blaming, downplaying certain forms of violence, and ignoring harassment, including homophobic and misogynous hate speech), while communicating an established protocol for reporting sexual violence. In practice, this gets very complicated, for instance, when cases began in the Counseling Center, confidentiality trumped any reporting protocol. Identifying campus Title IX or prevention experts to develop and implement prevention and training curriculum is one thing but making such training a campus-wide priority is another. There needs to be top-down support so other obligations do not trump training.
Title IX and the Clery Act make it clear that campus police cannot be the only investigators for crimes and victims must be urged to contact local police on their own. Nationally many universities and colleges had pressured students not to call local police, hiding the crime. They kept investigations internal, allowing them to pad statistics and create a fantasy of a safer campus. Universities and colleges sometimes took months to investigate accusations, leaving the accuser in a potentially dangerous physical and psychological limbo. For instance, does a student continue to go to a class with an offender or drop it, losing money and credits? What about the student who fears returning to campus and running into a perpetrator? Investigations must occur in a “timely manner” but what does this mean? What about students whose campus jobs are at risk if they have to avoid specific areas in order to comply with restraining orders or to avoid running into an offender? What are the rights of an offender to educational access? Can they be denied access to the campus or to their classes or extracurricular activities during the investigation? Indeed, like the analyst, students too can sue for discrimination when accused. These are real-life examples that only hint at the complications involved in seemingly simple steps.
As I write this chapter, the policy I worked on that was in effect until this year, has been a bit gutted in favor of a stricter, more criminal justice focused policy that follows the dictates of the Dear Colleague Letter. In this new policy victims no longer get an advocate. A pathology model prevails where victims are urged to seek mental health counseling instead. Campuses must have a Title IX Officer (the campus legal counsel) and prevention expert. However the prevention expert is not a singular job but additional responsibilities for someone who is probably already overtaxed.

#306: Campus Sexual Assault: Making the College Responsible

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). #306: Campus Sexual Assault: Making the College Responsible. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Oct 2018
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