Obama Administration Takes a Stand on Sexual Violence and Schools

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Vice President Joe Biden gave a heartfelt, hour-long speech at the University of New Hampshire today. The topic was sexual violence, and the occasion was the unveiling of new guidance to go along with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination, that spells out responsibilities that all federally-funded schools have when it comes to what Biden called the “dirty, little secret”: Women are abused and raped in America, on college campuses and elsewhere.

Domestic violence awareness has been a favorite cause of Biden’s for decades, and he’s helped pass laws related to abuse in general. But Monday’s event marked an unprecedented extension of the federal government’s reach into schools. “All universities are probably going to say the right thing, but I think some of them have become more complacent than others,” says Lisa Maatz, policy director for the American Association of University Women. The guidance, she says, is “supposed to help [schools] really understand what their role, what their responsibility is, so there are no questions, so there are no excuses.”

Before Biden made his emotional appeal, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out the nuts and bolts of the “Dear Colleague” letter being sent to schools today. There are examples of measures schools can take to more effectively prevent abuse, like making it clear that what a woman is wearing is never an excuse for sexual assault. There are guidelines for how disciplinary issues must be handled, for protecting students during investigations and for interpreting legal issues as they relate to Title IX. The need for new rules is clear: according to statistics in the letter, 1 in 5 females is the victim of “completed or attempted” sexual assault while in college, and the number of cases is thought to be under-reported.

If that all seems a little abstract, consider a real-life case relayed by Biden, one he suggests would have turned out differently under the new guidelines. A female student goes to a party and is sexually assaulted. She decides to have her case go through the school’s disciplinary process instead of the police.  She is asked by the school’s investigators about what she was wearing, if she was drinking and if she was dancing. Based on her answers, they decide she is not a credible witness. The boy seems nice. Case dismissed.

Biden relayed certain beliefs-that-need-dispelling, which he developed when working on the seminal Violence Against Women Act of 1994. One is “even the subconscious” notion that there’s a distinction between being abused by the hand of someone you know or that of a total stranger. Another is that “no circumstance — none, none — holds the abuser harmless because the victim’s judgment was impaired,” which is especially relevant for college campuses, frequently places where heavy drinking occurs.

The Vice President spoke directly to the male college students gathered there, as representatives of boys their age everywhere. He told them they needed to respect women and had to say or do something if their peers were acting otherwise. “If you want to measure your manhood,” he said in a bellowing, raspy tone, “measure it on the gumption you have to speak up.”

While the new guidance is a set of instructions, it’s also a threat that the government will be watching closely for schools that are anything less than proactive. For civil rights activists, this kind of outreach is a coup. “There’s enforcing the letter of the law, but there’s also enforcing the spirit of the law,” says Maatz, adding that she thinks the Obama administration is “leagues better” than Bush’s on this point. “The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education is back open for business.”