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When President Obama signs an updated version of the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday afternoon, the law will include new requirements for how colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault.
Laura Dunn, who’s been invited by the White House to attend, plans to be there.
In 2010, Dunn told her story on Morning Edition: She believed her Wisconsin school failed to properly investigate her allegations that she’d been raped by two students — young men she knew and trusted. Dunn and the men had been drinking. The school took nine months to investigate. By then, one of the men had graduated; Dunn would see the other on campus. And when school officials declined to punish him, there was nothing Dunn could do to appeal.
The new law — the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which was added to the Violence Against Women Act — clarifies the rights of victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence or stalking on campus. It gives victims a new ability to appeal an outcome. It also requires schools to inform victims of their rights and options, and to tell them where to get counseling and legal help.
The new law addresses issues raised in NPR’s 2010 series of stories, Seeking Justice for Campus Rapes. That series, a joint effort with the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, revealed that judicial proceedings were often secretive on campuses, and women often faced barriers when they tried to report rape complaints.
Even when men were found responsible, they were almost never expelled, NPR and CPI concluded. In many cases, it was the woman who dropped out of school rather than live in the same dorm or take classes with the man she’d accused.
"Victims of sexual violence on campus were being revictimized by a process that really was not geared to their needs," says S. Daniel Carter, who has long pushed for the change.
Carter, of VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a campus safety group started by the families of victims and survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, says one of the most important parts of the new law is that it requires schools to create prevention education. Those programs teach men and women the meaning of consent, and show bystanders how to intervene to stop sexual violence.
Not everyone is so sure that the law properly balances the rights of all students.
Will Creeley, of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, worries that with the new law, the pendulum is swinging too far back the other way, giving too much protection to students who make accusations at the expense of the rights of the accused.
"The need to secure justice for victims of sexual assault is paramount," Creeley says. "But campus judicial processes don’t have the kind of procedural safeguards that we should expect, given the severity and the life-altering punishments that are at stake. A student found guilty of sexual assaults will be expelled from campus and will be effectively labeled a rapist."
Creeley raised concerns about rules that say schools should determine responsibility based on the lowest standard for the burden of proof. That was dropped from the new law when it was debated by Congress. But it’s still part of guidelines to schools that the Department of Education developed in 2011.
For Laura Dunn, a lot has changed. Nine years ago, she was too ashamed, at first, to report what happened to her. Now she’s an advocate who lobbied Congress to pass the new law. She’s enrolled in law school.
"My goal is to be a victims’ rights attorney," she says. "Because victims deserve to be made whole. And that’s the purpose of the law."