Yesterday the Department of Justice announced that it had entered into two agreements with the University of Montana to ensure that the University responds swiftly and effectively to sexual assault and harassment on campus. Information about the investigations and agreements can be found on Justice News. The investigations at the University of Montana, which make clear that improper handling of sexual violence investigations on campus may constitute sex-based discrimination prohibited by federal civil rights laws and the Equal Protection guarantee of the United States Constitution, complement an on-going effort by the Administration to address the devastatingly high rate of sexual assault on campus. Young women aged 16-24 experience the highest rates of rape and sexual assault, and as many as 1 in 5 have been victims of sexual assault during college. These crimes on campuses raise unique issues and challenges. For example, a victim of sexual assault may continue to live in the same dormitory or attend the same classes as the perpetrator. On smaller campuses, a victim may wish to remain anonymous but may find this to be virtually impossible in such an insular environment. Victims may find it difficult to escape their rapists because the individual may have a seemingly “legitimate” reason for remaining in contact with or in proximity to the victim (e.g., studying in the library). In other cases, a victim may be harassed by classmates or by a perpetrator’s friends who claim that the victim “asked for it” or “provoked” the crime. Recognizing these challenges, Congress created the Grants to Reduce Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking on Campus Program (Campus Program), which is administered by OVW. OVW’s Campus Program is designed to encourage colleges and universities to adopt comprehensive, coordinated responses to violent crimes against women on campuses. Recipients of funds through the Campus Program, are required to provide prevention education on violence against women for all incoming students, train campus law enforcement or security staff on appropriate responses to violence against women, train members of campus judicial or disciplinary boards on the unique dynamics of violence against women, and create a coordinated community response to violence against women. Since Fiscal Year 1999, OVW has awarded 321 grants directly to institutions of higher education to implement the Campus Program requirements and guidelines. Currently the Campus Program has 89 active awards supporting 150 institutions —including the University of Montana, which received an award in 2012. As an extension of our work in the Campus Program, in October 2011, OVW hosted a 2-day National Summit on Campus Safety for College and University Presidents. The purpose of the Summit was to strengthen partnerships between the federal government and concerned college and university presidents and regents and elevate the national dialogue about sexual assault, dating violence and domestic violence on campus. In addition, to assist educators with their sexual assault prevention efforts, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” and guidance on sexual harassment in 2011, which outlines a school’s responsibilities under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities of recipients of federal financial assistance. The University of Montana is not alone in its need to improve its response to violence against women on campus. But today, the University is poised to stand as a model of how campus officials can step up and make our nation’s colleges safe for all students. I commend the University of Montana for its commitment to reform. I look forward to partnering with the University as they work to address the issues identified in the Civil Rights Division’s investigation and create a campus environment where students are safe from violence and able to access help when needed. I hope colleges across the country will follow their lead.
May 10, 2013
Updated July 30, 2014