In 2015, the documentary film The Hunting Ground made waves after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, bringing to light an issue that’s been traditionally ignored by mainstream media: campus sexual assault.
Sexual violence is a widespread and dangerous threat on college campuses. As many as one in five women experience some sort of sexual assault during college, and only about 12% of those assaults are reported.
The filmmakers behind The Hunting Ground say that many campus sexual assaults are committed by “serial predators,” who search for and target specific victims. Indeed, research shows that a small percentage of people commit sexual assaults on campus and that each assaulter attacks an average of six victims. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who led a bipartisan group of senators to propose the Campus Accountability & Safety Act (S. 590), says, “These are not dates gone bad, or a good guy who had too much to drink. This is a crime largely perpetrated by repeat offenders, who instead of facing a prosecutor and a jail cell, remain on campus after a short-term suspension, if punished at all.”
This recurrence of violence by repeat offenders likely occurs because colleges simply aren’t taking enough disciplinary action against those who commit sexual assault.
As Senator Gillibrand said, many accused (and found guilty) of sexual assault don’t face punishment on campus. The Hunting Ground reports that, from 1996 to 2013, there were 259 reported sexual assaults at Stanford University. Yet, in only one case was there an expulsion. It’s hard to believe that out of 259 accusations of sexual assault, only one was true.
In the rare instances in which a perpetrator of sexual assault is punished for their crime, the punishments are remarkably lenient. Brock Turner was convicted of the rape of a student at Stanford University but was sentenced to just six months (of which he only served three) because the judge feared a harsher sentence would have a “severe impact” on him. In another instance at the University of California at San Francisco, a student was found guilty of the sexual assault of another student, but was punished with a one year suspension that began one month after he finished the classes required for his degree.
Clearly, many colleges severely botch the procedure of handling a sexual assault accusation on campus. There’s currently over 300 federal investigations of colleges accused of violating Title IX in their handling of sexual assault cases.
Of those universities, none have apologized for how they handled sexual assault on campus. Of course, most schools don’t apologize because they don’t want to put focus on an issue that would make them seen undesirable to prospective students. Many colleges go so far as to deny the occurrence of rape on their campuses. In 2014, 91% of colleges reported zero instances of rape on campus. This seems unlikely, when over 20% of women say they experienced sexual assault in college.
There are steps being taken on the federal level to combat this issue. The Obama administration introduced a plan to help bring an end to campus sexual assault by teaching colleges (that receive federal funding) about their legal responsibilities regarding sexual assaults as well as how to best respond to them. In addition, they founded the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and plan to review the current laws regarding sexual assault to confirm they truly protect victims. Also, as mentioned above, Senator Gillibrand hopes to help pass the Campus Accountability & Safety Act. This would be a comprehensive law which, based on the input of survivors, colleges, and law enforcement, would support student survivors while also ensuring colleges adhere to legal requirements and uniform student disciplinary processes.
But more still needs to be done on the individual level at every college campus across the nation.
Nothing will change unless colleges themselves choose to fight back against sexual assault by educating students on consent, enforcing rules and punishing perpetrators and, most importantly, supporting survivors.
Cover Image via Entertainment Weekly