GUEST BLOG: Campus Sexual Assault is a Civil Rights Issue
Last Friday marked the opening of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about rape on American college campuses, in which students share painful testimonies about sexual violation and frustrated hopes for justice. The film highlights the serious human toll resulting from the fact that roughly one in five women faces sexual assault during her college years... “The Hunting Ground” comes at an important moment in the public conversation about the epidemic of campus sexual assault in this country. While the movement to raise awareness about widespread sexual victimization of college women has continued to gain momentum, the countermovement that has emerged is fierce.
By Alliyson McKinney
Last Friday marked the opening of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about rape on American college campuses, in which students share painful testimonies about sexual violation and frustrated hopes for justice. The film highlights the serious human toll resulting from the fact that roughly one in five women faces sexual assault during her college years. Having closely followed a troubling case of mishandled rape allegations at my alma mater, Florida State University, it is gratifying to see the woman who reported that incident, and many others like her, have this opportunity to voice their experiences.
“The Hunting Ground” comes at an important moment in the public conversation about the epidemic of campus sexual assault in this country. While the movement to raise awareness about widespread sexual victimization of college women has continued to gain momentum, the countermovement that has emerged is fierce.
Sexual assault that creates a “hostile environment” on campus is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our day. As with every struggle for civil rights and human equality, however, those seeking justice and change face formidable resistance—a backlash.
We have reached a moment when the moral support of faith leaders concerned about sexual violence on campus is essential if this arduous journey, led by courageous survivors-turned-activists, is to result in justice and healing.
Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new phenomenon, as those who counsel young adults know well. The , found that 19% of the 5,446 undergraduate women surveyed had suffered attempted or actual sexual assault (including rape and sexual battery) during college.
Colleges are paying greater attention to campus sexual assault since 2011, when the Department of Education clarified schools’ obligations under Title IX, a . Schools have obligations to ensure equal educational opportunity and keep their campuses safe. They must respond to every complaint of sexual assault against a student, taking immediate measures to protect the victim’s safety and ensuring an “adequate, reliable and impartial investigation” to resolve the complaint “promptly and equitably.”
Numerous student survivors have reported that their schools failed to respond adequately to their accounts of sexual violence, often exacerbating their trauma. The number of educational institutions under investigation for potential Title IX violations based on mishandling of sexual assault complaints has swelled to 94.
Not everyone is happy about steps the federal government has taken to ensure that colleges respond effectively to sexual assault. Some critics argue that schools should not be responsible for addressing these cases, that they should simply refer them to the criminal system. Such arguments are unhelpful, however, when they fail to engage the civil rights issue at stake—nondiscriminatory access to education for all students, regardless of gender—and how this implicates campus safety and student disciplinary concerns.
On one hand, some important questions have been raised—about what due process looks like in this context, what training school officials need, and what disciplinary measures will be sufficient to deter future assaults. Some advocates caution against diverting energy from improving deficient criminal justice responses to rape. All of these issues should be part of the conversation.
On the other hand, however, extremist arguments that deny campus rape is a problem, prematurely claim nascent policy reforms have failed, or cynically suggest that schools flout their duties under federal law or that students evade school rules are troubling and distracting. We need to be talking about how to assure the rights of victims and accused persons, remaining mindful of how rape culture can operate to silence victims and legitimize the status quo.
School systems for adjudicating sexual assault are not flawless at this stage. Schools are still finding their way and some have reached puzzling decisions, to the disappointment of students who looked to them for justice. But these challenges should spur us to redouble our efforts to protect students’ civil rights, not abandon the mission. Indeed, the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women and the National Institute of Justice are assessing approaches to these cases to identify model practices.
Thinking carefully about how to ensure justice for all is essential; but claiming that justice is not badly needed or is just too difficult for schools to manage is not an adequate response to the current crisis.
To summarize: our country has a serious problem with rape on campus, this constitutes a violation of civil rights, and although the federal government has implemented reforms to safeguard students’ rights, its efforts are being met with considerable resistance.
In recent months, clergy have joined activists on the front lines of movements to end racial injustice in our criminal system and the inhumane treatment of immigrants. Their presence lends courage to these causes and strengthens their ministry to do justice in their communities. This good work stands in an historic tradition of visionary religious leaders who have enlivened the long struggle for civil rights, often in the face of staunch opposition.
In the same spirit, the movement to end campus rape is in great need of more religious leaders and people of faith willing to join their voices with those of survivors calling for protection of their civil and human rights, willing to stand for justice.
If you need further inspiration to begin advocating, catch “The Hunting Ground” this weekend—or, better yet, plan to host a screening for your congregation.
Allyson McKinney is an international human rights lawyer, seminarian, and advocate for women's rights and gender equality. She has worked in the field of human rights for over a decade. She is in her final year of the Master's of Divinity program at Yale Divinity School.
Allyson began her career in human rights as the Uganda Field Office Director for International Justice Mission, a faith-based human rights agency. She earned her law degree and MBA at Georgetown University, and was the Cover-Lowenstein Fellow in International Human Rights at Yale Law School, where she taught and supervised student work in a clinical human rights class.
You can view Allyson's FaithTrust Institute webinar "A Human Rights Approach to Confronting Domestic Violence" on YouTube.