New Federal Rules Will Change the Way Colleges Handle Sexual Assault

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New Federal Rules Will Change the Way Colleges Handle Sexual Assault

Emily Crockett

The rules are the result of months of discussion with campus officials, victim advocates, and students to figure out how to implement the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013.

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

The trauma of a campus sexual assault often doesn’t end with the attack itself. Survivors might be forced to continue living in the same dorm as their rapist even though they’ve asked to transfer. They might not even know how to request such a transfer, and at the end of it all, their attacker might be found guilty only to be “punished” with writing an essay or watching a movie about sexual assault.

New rules published Monday by the Obama administration aim to fix these kinds of problems.

The rules are the result of months of discussion with campus officials, victim advocates, and students to figure out how to implement the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA).

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The new rules add or redefine new categories of sex crimes that colleges must report, improve campus education and prevention programs, and ensure that victims are given equitable treatment.

“The final VAWA regulations reflect the most sweeping change to federal campus sexual assault policy in 20 years, bringing significant changes to how colleges and universities prevent and respond to this serious challenge,” S. Daniel Carter, director of 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, told Rewire via email.

The VAWA reauthorization codifies practices that used to be just guidance from the Department of Education on how to interpret Title IX laws against sex discrimination. That’s important because it will be much harder for a future administration to overturn the regulations, Laura Dunn, founder of the victims’ advocacy group SurvJustice, told Rewire. “We want these things to last into the future,” she said.

The new rules make clear that schools have to give students reasonable academic or living arrangement accommodations after an assault. Moreover, those accommodations can’t hinge on whether or not a student decides to report.

“I hear a lot of complaints from students who are furious that they are never given the opportunity to move out of the dorm where a person who harmed them lived, or have a class changed even though they have to see either a perpetrator or someone who retaliated against them after their report,” Dunn said. “There’s no excuse for that.”

Under the new rules, schools will also have to be much more clear and up-front about informing victims about how to apply for those accommodations.

“A survivor is never going to request what they don’t know exists,” Dunn said.

The final VAWA rules also force schools to be more transparent and equitable about their disciplinary proceedings.

Schools have to publish information about each type of disciplinary proceeding they use, the expected timing, and the decision-making process.

If schools include, say, essays or films as possible disciplinary actions against a rapist, they have to list that, along with any other sanctions like expulsion or suspension.

Colleges and universities also have to inform students in writing of not just the outcome but also the reasoning behind any decisions they make after a proceeding, and give students a reason if a proceeding is being delayed.

Being required to put the reasoning and not just the result in writing, Dunn said, will hopefully encourage schools to think twice before dismissing a case on spurious grounds. Dunn said that if she’d had in writing that her own rape case was dismissed just because she had been drinking, she could have sued her school.

And both parties in a proceeding have the right to any kind of adviser they choose, including a lawyer, which wasn’t the case before this new set of rules and regulations.

Schools are also required to provide “primary prevention” programs to educate students on preventing sexual violence, and the rules for what these programs have to teach are much more detailed than ever before.

“One of the things I really appreciated is that [the rules] didn’t look at primary prevention in the stereotypical way of, ‘Women, don’t walk alone at night,’ that kind of thing,” Dunn said. “It pushed past that, and it talked about really getting to the root cause of social norms that allow violence against women to be prevalent.”

Primary prevention programs must promote “healthy, mutually respectful relationships and sexuality.” Bystander intervention should teach people how to recognize threatening situations and safely intervene, but also to understand “institutional structures and cultural conditions that facilitate violence.”

Risk reduction is defined to be about reducing the number of perpetrators and inactive bystanders as well as empowering victims.

The word “consent” is not defined in the VAWA regulations, but schools are required to teach about consent as it is defined by local jurisdictions.

The new VAWA rules also added dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking to the list of crimes a school has to include in its annual crime report, broadened the definition of a “hate crime,” and also divided “sexual assault” into four categories: rape (which now matches the FBI’s new, much less regressive definition), fondling (which includes most unwanted sexual touching), incest, and statutory rape.

Redefining rape to include any unwanted sexual penetration was especially important for LGBT survivors, Dunn said, because their assaults may not fit the FBI’s old bill of “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

The rules make clear that a student’s personal information does not have to be released when schools issue a “timely warning” report to the community that a sex crime has occurred.

The new rules will take effect on July 1, 2015, giving institutions at least seven months to comply.