Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Sexual Assault on Campus: New Rules from the Obama Administration

By Anna GrosshansPublished November 9, 2014

New policies from the Obama Administration will have universities deal with sexual assault on campus. The new rules include a broader definition of sexual assault, regulations for the disciplinary process, and guidelines for how to support survivors. The aim is to create a culture that is intolerant of sexual assault and violence against women.

By Anna Grosshans, 11/9/2014

New rules from the Obama administration will change how universities deal with cases of sexual assault on campus.  Often, the trauma of a sexual assault continues long after the attack.  Some survivors continue to come into contact with their attackers because universities do not grant them new housing assignments, even if they live down the hall from their rapist.  Some bump into their attackers in class because universities deny their requests for a schedule change.  What's more, attackers often face minimal punishments even after being found guilty. 

These new rules aim to fix these problems and force universities to enforce policies that protect survivors of sexual assault.  They come as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2013.  The act changes the scope of crimes and attacks that universities are required to report.  Schools are now also required to report stalking, domestic violence, and dating violence.  It splits up the definition of sexual assault into four different categories: rape, fondling, statutory rape, and incest. 

One of the most important parts of the act is that it redefines rape as any unwanted sexual penetration.  Previously, the FBI narrowly defined rape as forcible sex with a woman against her will.  The new definition will allow for a greater emphasis on the importance of consent.  This will also be important for LGBT survivors because it broadens the scope of attacks that legally constitute sexual assault.

The new regulations also require that colleges accommodate survivors in their living situations and academic settings.  Schools must also publicize these policies; even if the policies are in place, survivors can't request these important accommodations if they don't know they exist. 

Schools are now required to keep a record of every sexual assault that is reported, the disciplinary procedure they follow, and how they reach the final decision.  They must inform their students, in writing, not only of the disciplinary outcome, but also of the reasoning behind it.

Having this reasoning in writing will force universities to be more careful about dismissing sexual assault cases without a thorough investigation.  For example, many cases have been wrongfully dismissed because the victim had been drinking before the attack.  If that reasoning had been in writing, those survivors would be able to sue their schools.

These new rules place more emphasis on "primary prevention" programs than ever before.  These programs aim to educate students about sexual assault in a way that gets at the root of the problem.  They try to promote healthy, equal relationships and views on sexuality.  This is a big change from traditional programs that focus on teaching women to avoid walking alone at night and other ways to protect themselves from attackers.  These programs also aim to reduce the number of potential perpetrators and bystanders that fail to intervene.  The goal is to create a culture that is intolerant of violence against women.

This is the most significant change in college sexual assault policy in several decades.  Hopefully, this will spark a new conversation and culture that protects and supports the survivors of sexual assault.