American University Says No to DOJ Grant Over Mandatory Sexual Assault Classes and Surveys

By on March 30, 2011

On the website TBD.com, Amanda Hess has an interesting article about American University’s (AU’s) decision to block a campus initiative that would have made the university eligible for $300,000 in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, aimed at addressing and preventing sexual assault on campus. Why did AU do it? Here’s the key part:

The proposed education program would require all new students to attend a seminar and an individualized break-out session on the topics of "healthy relationships, consent, relationship violence, stalking, sexual assault and risks correlated with increased use of drugs and alcohol." Incoming students would also be required to complete surveys about sexual assault at two points during the year. In order to ensure compliance with the policy, students who failed to attend the training or complete the surveys would be blocked from registering for classes for the next semester.

That sanction proved a deal-breaker for Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson, who informed grant supporters this week that she would not sign off on the application, which is due to the Department of Justice on March 31. In an e-mail, Hanson questioned "whether it is appropriate to place stops on students’ registrations if they fail to complete a required sexual assault education program." Hanson added that "it would be exceptional for us to enforce that requirement through registration stops, as the grant proposal currently provides" and urged the campus to revisit the grant proposal next year after locating "an alternative approach."

FIRE has discussed the issues with mandatory sexual assault education before. Most recently, we’ve done so with regard to Hamilton College’s "She Fears You" orientation program, which was based on the theory that men need a "combined emotional and cognitive intervention" to reform their deeply ingrained rape-supportive beliefs about gender and sexuality.

Hess mentions this program in her article, and the "She Fears You" program is well worth reading about in full, so I won’t rehash it here. It’s important to note, though, that AU’s proposed program was problematic in an additional way: aside from the training itself, it would have required students to fill out two sexual assault surveys per year, apparently asking questions such as whether they had had "unwanted sexual intercourse" or endured "forced sexual touching or fondling" in recent months. If students failed to fill out these surveys (or attend the training program), they would be blocked from registering for classes–essentially, kicked out of school.

Sexual assault is a heinous crime. It’s understandable that AU and other universities want the best possible statistics about how often it happens to their students. However, this program would effectively have been telling victims of sexual assault that if they didn’t reveal information about their experience, they were no longer welcome to take classes at AU. It is not surprising, then, that Vice President Hanson had some serious reservations about this plan to implement the program. Forcing victims to report serious crimes against their person and discuss matters of such sensitivity as a condition of continued enrollment at a university is coercive and unreasonable, and is contrary to other programs many universities have in place that allow victims of sexual assault to address their experiences in a far more sensitive manner.

Leaving aside the mandatory surveys, though, what about the program itself? Hess quotes FIRE’s own Will Creeley:

FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, Will Creeley, told me that mandatory sexual assault programs raise the foundation’s attention if they engage in "editorializing" on the issue. To Creeley, an acceptable sexual assault training would stick to informing students: "This is what we consider sexual assault, and here are what the punishments are."

Mandatory sexual assault programs, properly constructed, don’t necessarily raise concerns about coercing students into the "right" expression, thought, or beliefs-as Will points out. However, the temptation to politicize such programs seems to have proven nearly irresistible, and the Department of Justice’s grant program is unfortunately not constructed to avoid such politicization, and may even encourage it. Excerpts from the "minimum requirements" for such programs are below, with some potential trouble spots bolded by me:

  • Establish a mandatory prevention and education program about violence against women for all incoming students, working in collaboration with campus and community-based victim advocacy organizations. The program should include information about domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking crimes, including the following: how to file internal administrative complaints and local criminal charges; common myths about the causes of violence against women; the availability of resources for victims; and how to encourage peer support for victims and sanctions for offenders. To encourage reporting of violence against women crimes, campuses should consider establishing policies and advising students that victims who come forward to report that they have been victimized will not be penalized if they violated the institution’s alcohol, substance abuse, or other policies during the violent incident.
  • Establish or strengthen programs to train members of campus disciplinary boards to respond effectively to charges of violence against women. Training for disciplinary board members should include the following: a review of the student code of conduct and legal definitions of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking; information refuting myths about violence against women; training on the issue of consent in sexual assault cases; information about judging credibility, including the fact that a victim’s use of alcohol does not indicate that a victim is lying about or responsible for an assault; information about drug-facilitated sexual assault cases; and information about appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion of students who have perpetrated domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.

Some questions that immediately spring to mind:

  • What are the "myths about violence against women"? Who decides what is a myth and what is just an opinion? Are these based on scientific findings or political beliefs?
  • What does it mean to encourage sanctions for offenders? Does this mean simply encourage the creation of rules that lay out sanctions for offenders (does any college not have those?) or does it mean something else?
  • What is the nature of the information that is to be given to help judge credibility? Is it fair to apply general rules or statistics to determine who might be telling the truth to specific cases?

These are thorny questions to which I don’t necessarily have the answers. But any university considering applying for the DOJ grant has a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to answer them to their satisfaction and to the satisfaction of those living under the rulesthe students.

Schools: American University