University of Texas officials and colleges across the country are responding to the U.S. Department of Education’s call for a retooling of sexual assault policies.
The “Dear Colleague” letter, issued April 4 by the department’s Office for Civil Rights, called for universities to take a closer look at their sexual assault policies in order to improve resources and support for victims. According to the letter, sexual discrimination is a major issue on campuses, but acts of assault are “vastly underreported.” The letter mandates that school officials actively investigate reports, provide adequate resources to victims and inform both the perpetrator and complainant of individual rights.
UT is joining other universities in revising its sexual assault and discrimination policies. Marc Shook, assistant dean of students for Student Judicial Services, said the administration is examining and altering the current policy to comply with standards in the letter.
“All University policies are looked at each year to see if revisions are needed,” Shook said. “Every college in the country has policies of how to resolve sexual assault issues, and the letter is encouraging institutions to pay more attention to the rights of survivors.”
UT officials have not determined an exact implementation date for the revised policy but believe it will be adopted before the end of the current calendar year. Shook said the campus community should realize the old policy was not necessarily poor or ineffective, but must be updated to comply with new standards issued by the Office for Civil Rights.
The University currently offers resources to victims of sexual assault through several departments, including the Voices Against Violence program offered through the Counseling and Mental Health Center. Jane Morgan Bost, the center’s associate director, created the program 10 years ago to address issues related to sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking.
Bost said hundreds of students have utilized resources provided by Voices Against Violence. Lasting effects of sexual assault vary widely, but it is important the University provide assistance to survivors so individual situations can be resolved appropriately, she said.
“Whether or not they report the crime should be up to the survivor,” Bost said. “Survivors have had control taken away from them, and forcing them to do something they don’t want to would just take away even more control.”
The letter classifies violence, harassment and sexual assault as forms of discrimination and recommends university policy revisions to diminish these occurrences.
Ixchel Rosal, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center, said she has also heard from students suffering from sexual discrimination and seen several forms of its effects. Rosal said assault is not always physical.
“It is difficult and problematic to rank experiences because they are so individual,” Rosal said. “Someone’s verbal assault could be just as terrible as a physical one, but they are all connected to the same system of discrimination and that system is the problem. We have to shift that system through education and awareness.”