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EDITORIAL

Colleges need to improve response to sexual assaults

Friday, July 8, 2011 - 10:18 am

Few sexual assault cases reported on college campuses even lead to arrests, let alone convictions. That was the conclusion based on a report by the Chicago Tribune that looked at three Illinois and two Indiana colleges. One of those Indiana colleges, the University of Notre Dame, has been prompted to take steps to improve its response as part of an agreement announced Friday with the U.S. Department of Education.

To which we say, about time.

The school had been under federal investigation for seven months for its response to sexual assaults on its campus. Women and their families complained Notre Dame's campus police delayed interviewing suspects for weeks, and then in some cases the interviews took place through email rather than in person, and months passed before the university resolved cases.

According to a release from the Department of Education: “Specifically, the agreement requires the university to ensure that students and the public know how to report sexual harassment and what to expect from the university and law enforcement after making such a report. The university agreed to make clear that it will use a ‘preponderance of evidence' standard to evaluate allegations of sexual harassment, cyber-harassment as a form of sexual harassment and intimidation or obstruction to prevent the reporting of sexual harassment or participation in appropriate investigatory proceedings. The university also agreed to initiate and conclude its … investigations within 60 calendar days.”

Perhaps one of the best provisions in the new agreement protects victims who report sexual assault from having to endure threats or harassment from the alleged perpetrator or third parties. University officials will also make it clear to alleged victims that they can pursue their case criminally, through the school's internal student disciplinary process or both.

Student safety advocates are, in general, applauding the agreement.

“This is a declaration that it does apply to everyone, and no one is going to get a pass, no matter how powerful they are,” S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at Security On Campus, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce violent crime at colleges, told the Chicago Tribune.

We think all Indiana colleges should closely examine the Notre Dame agreement and make sure their own policies, at worst, match those set forth in the deal with DOE. However, we find it sad in general that it took a federal investigation and a series of newspaper articles to put pressure on Notre Dame, and in turn other colleges, to take these necessary steps.

Creating a safe environment for students should be a proactive exercise, and we hope universities follow Notre Dame's lead, even if it was forced to take such a leadership position.

— From the Marion Chronicle-Tribune