Joe Biden and Barack Obama rewrite rules on college sexual assaults


U.S. , joined by Vice President . Photo / Getty Images

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden penned a searing letter to the victim
in a notorious Stanford University rape case. “I am filled with furious
anger,” he wrote, “both that this happened to you and that our culture
is still so broken.”
Biden’s letter encapsulated the national
outrage that erupted when the woman’s attacker was sentenced to just six
months in county jail. It was also a sharp reminder that one of the
Obama administration’s most ardent policy initiatives has been a
concerted campaign to end the scourge of sexual assault on college
According to White House officials, top members of the
administration – including the president, the vice president, their
wives and members of the Cabinet – will not visit institutions whose
leaders they consider insufficiently serious about pursuing
sexual-assault allegations and punishing perpetrators.

Biden said in an interview that he would like the federal
government to “take away their money” if a college or university fails
to change its ways.
As the administration nears its end, the
urgency of some proposals has dissipated, but the focus on campus sexual
misconduct has intensified: “Now’s the time to put the pedal to the
metal,” Biden said.
Already the efforts of this White House have
dramatically transformed the way colleges and universities respond to
allegations of sexual misconduct. The Education Department has 253
ongoing investigations at 198 postsecondary institutions into the
handling of sexual violence.
Hundreds of schools have taken steps
to make it easier to report allegations and discipline offenders. Many
schools have appointed a specific officer to receive complaints and have
determined that a “preponderance of evidence” is enough to establish
that misconduct occurred, a less rigorous evidentiary standard than the
“beyond a reasonable doubt” that applies in most criminal cases.
The changes have also provoked criticism from some
students and administrators, who see the federal involvement as
heavy-handed and sometimes unfair.
One general counsel for a
liberal arts college, who sought anonymity out of fear of federal
retaliation, lamented that following the administration’s approach can
put those accused of sexual misconduct at a disadvantage since so many
incidents involve “two individuals who are alone and behind closed

Brock Turner was only sentenced for 6 months for sexually assauliting a woman. Photo / AP
That makes some of these cases “massively difficult to
resolve,” the official said, adding, “We are committed to being fair and
equitable to all of our students.”
The administration has also
launched a public-awareness campaign, “It’s On ,” which encourages men
and women to intervene before sexual assault takes place. More than
344,400 people have taken the White House pledge, and 530 schools in 48
states have active It’s On Us chapters.
The administration’s
approach – through federal enforcement of civil rights protections and a
campus-based advocacy campaign – was spurred in part by an emboldened
group of survivors who have gone public with their complaints about
their schools’ unresponsiveness.
But it also reflects the
activism of Biden and President Barack Obama, who became alarmed at the
idea of rape as a fixture of college life.
Biden said he spoke to
Obama about the issue even before they won the White House in 2008,
requesting a staff to work on violence against women “within the office
of the vice president,” rather than at the Justice Department.
said, ‘OK.’ He knew how strongly I felt about it,” Biden said, adding
that over time Obama became more engaged with the issue. “He always
thought it was an awful abuse of power. But as his daughters grew, he
became more explicitly focused on it.”
Reports of campus sexual
misconduct are on the rise, which academic and legal experts attribute
to heightened awareness of the issue. United Educators, a firm that
provides insurance and risk-management services to nearly 1,300 U.S.
schools, found that reports of sexual-assault claims among its clients
doubled from 2011 to 2013.
Kevin Kruger, president of Student
Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said his members have taken a
harder look at how they treat allegations of misconduct and at why more
students don’t come forward to report violations.
“We had become
a little complacent about thinking this is a societal problem, and we
were not doing enough about it,” Kruger said, adding that survivors had
“called out higher education and said, ‘You’re not doing enough,’ and
they were right.”
The legal underpinnings for the current
strategy lie in Title IX, a provision in a 1972 education law barring
sex discrimination at schools that receive federal money. A 1992 Supreme
Court ruling established the standard of rape as discrimination. The
court ruled that a student in a Gwinnett County, Georgia, public school
was a victim of sex discrimination under the law after a teacher
subjected her “to coercive intercourse.”
In 2001 the Education
Department’s Office for Civil Rights issued guidance that sexual
harassment constituted a threat to students’ ability to pursue
educational opportunities.
In 2009 Obama appointed Russlynn Ali, a
longtime advocate for students of color, to head that office. Ali was
appalled by accounts that a 16-year-old was repeatedly raped and beaten
in a courtyard outside her high school’s homecoming dance in October
2009 in Richmond, Calif. Many witnessed the attack without calling

Vice President Joe Biden. Photo / AP
“I remember feeling like we had to do something,” Ali
recalled. “Children were being raped at our schools. … Of course we
were going to use everything in our power to do something about it.”
the same time, Biden asked his staff to compile statistics on violence
against women in the to compare with data from before
Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act he wrote in 1994. For
girls and women 16 to 24 years old, he recalled, the numbers remained
unchanged. “It was devastating,” he said.
Ali, working with White
House staff, penned a “Dear Colleague”letter in 2011 informing school
administrators across the country that sexual violence constituted a
form of sexual harassment and that if they did not take sufficient steps
to prevent and address sexual misconduct, they would be found in
violation of Title IX and could risk losing federal funds. A 2014 White
House task force report fleshed out the protocol.
Cari Simon, a
lawyer who has represented dozens of campus-assault survivors, said
aspects of the guidance, like accommodations to shield victims from
subsequent harassment and trauma, were critical to avoid them going into
“a downward-spiral path.”
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.,
chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions,
calls the guidance overreach. He said he welcomed the It’s On Us
campaign but that the Education Department must make it clear that its
“guidance does not have the force of law.”
More than 100 students
have challenged some aspect of their school’s adjudication process
since the 2011 letter, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights
in Education, which promotes free speech and other liberties at
colleges and universities.
In one case, a student – “John Doe” –
sued and later settled with Brandeis University after his ex-boyfriend
accused him of “numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual
interactions” during an almost two-year relationship.
In allowing
the case to move forward, U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV wrote
that reducing sexual assault was a “laudable” goal but noted that
whether “the elimination of basic procedural protections – and the
substantially increased risk that innocent students will be punished –
is a fair price to achieve that goalis another question altogether.”
Lhamon, who succeeded Ali as the Education Department’s assistant
secretary for civil rights, said her office is “constantly in
reevaluation over whether what we are doing is right” but that schools
are legally obligated to ensure sexual violence does not undermine
students’ educations.
“Certainly, from 1992 forward,” she said,
citing the year of the Supreme Court’s rape ruling, “I have no sympathy
for a frank abdication of responsibility for the students you are
charged with educating and whose civil rights are being violated.”

US vice president Joe Biden. Photo / AP
When the civil rights office releases a voluntary agreement
with an institution, it also issues its own “findings of fact.” Schools
are briefed on the findings but do not see them in advance.
Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education,
called the civil rights office “a Court of Star Chamber, with arbitrary
rulings, no rights for those under investigation and a secret process.”
In response, Lhamon said, “I appreciate that they would like to negotiate it, but it is not actually theirs to negotiate.”
the federal disciplinary guidance remains controversial, the campaign
for bystander intervention that the White House launched in 2014 has won
widespread support. Obama himself proposed the idea of involving men in
ending sexual misconduct, according to aides.
Matt Hill had
agreed to help launch It’s On Us in September 2014 while serving as the
student body president at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. About a month later, a friend called to say that she
had been raped the night before at a campus party.
Hill said he
asked himself, “Why, a month ago, as a male junior in college, did I not
think this was an important issue?” The following April, he helped
organize a 2,000-person campus rally where Biden was the featured
At a party that weekend, two sorority members he knew
told him they had been raped. The women told him the Biden rally left
them feeling “empowered and supported.”
And apart from the
campaign, students have started demanding more accountability from
schools. Kansas State University is being sued by two students, Sara
Weckhorst and Tessa Farmer, who say they were raped at different
fraternity houses, in 2014 and 2015, and now share the campus with their
assailants because the university refuses to investigate sexual assault
off campus.
On Friday, the Justice Department filed two separate
amicus briefs on the students’ side, arguing their Title IX suits
should go forward.
Zach Lowry, president of the interfraternity
council there, is pressing the university to investigate those
allegations and others. Kansas State gives his group reports of sexual
misconduct so the council can decide whether to discipline any of its 24
member organizations, but the school offers no assistance in
investigating the claims.
“It’s like pushing these incidents
aside and not dealing with them,” Lowry said. “I want to find out if
these incidents happened.”
For this part, Biden continues to meet
privately with women and men, in settings ranging from college campuses
to a hallway at the Academy Awards. He ushers out most of his staff,
and the men and women tell him their stories.
Laura Dunn, who
founded the victims rights group SurvJustice and who filed a federal
complaint against the University of Wisconsin in 2006, picketed the
Education Department in 2013 for not doing enough to hold universities
accountable. But she has also met with Biden twice and has advised the
administration on its campus-assault policies for several years.
“I think the government heard us,” Dunn said.

Leave a Reply