This article was published in USA TODAY Sports by Rachel Axon at 7:40 a.m. EDT April 25, 2014
Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino were not satisfied with changing only how their school handled sexual assaults. They wanted to start a national movement.
They had recovered from sexual assaults as students at the University of North Carolina where, instead of being supported, they say, they were blamed. The friends spent much of 2012 working on opposite coasts to draft a Title IX complaint against their school that they filed with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
"What Annie and I realized was for this to be effective, not just at Carolina, but historically something that would make other things happen, we had to make this bigger. We had to make it a movement," Pino says. "And we had to come out. We couldn't stay in the closet about our experiences."
They filed their Title IX complaint in early 2013. They shared their stories, and dozens of women at other schools have followed their lead, many with the help of Clark and Pino. The student activism has captured the attention of the federal government, including President Obama, in a collaboration that aims to counteract what many consider an epidemic.
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Nearly one in five women and one in 16 men is the victim of an attempted or completed rape while in college, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice.
"Nobody else was really doing it," says Clark. "We knew the law. We had our personal stories, and we kind of put the two together."
And statistics suggest the climate is changing. As of April 16, The Office for Civil Rights received more Title IX complaints related to colleges' handling of sexual assaults halfway through this fiscal year (33) than it got in all of 2013, when 30 were filed.
Under Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, schools are required to address sexual assaults on their campuses. OCR has stepped up enforcement, starting with a memo — a "Dear Colleague" letter — issued to schools in April 2011. It requires schools to conduct "prompt, thorough and impartial" investigations of sexual assaults, regardless of the outcome of any criminal inquiry.
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Obama has created a task force to address the issue. Its recommendations were scheduled to be delivered to the President this week with officials anticipating the report to be made public next week. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are seeking information from schools to assess how they are complying with current laws and may propose stronger ones. McCaskill plans to hold at least one hearing on the issue after collecting the surveys and meeting with stakeholders.
"What (schools) needed was the federal government saying, 'You'd better not sleep on this anymore. And we know what you're doing, so you'd better stop doing it,'" says Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victims Rights Law Center in Boston. "That made a huge difference, and then I think we saw a gigantic change."
The problem of sexual assaults on campuses and schools' often-abysmal track record of dealing with them — an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in 2009-10 found schools had largely mishandled sexual assault complaints — has gained attention with the recent revelation that Florida State is under investigation by OCR.
A woman who says she was raped by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston in December 2012 filed an OCR complaint in March, and the office opened an investigation this month.
It is one of 53 pending against schools. That OCR is facing a wave of complaints is due, in part, to Clark and Pino.
"It's exciting to see (women) evolve from victim to survivor to fighter for change," says Gloria Allred, a high-profile women's rights attorney who has been involved in Title IX lawsuits, settlements and an OCR complaint. "To see young women become empowered is very exciting and that will remain with them for the rest of their lives."
Feds push changes
Before Clark and Pino started their campaign, the federal government sought to spark changes on college campuses.
In 2001, OCR released a document that focused on preventing and remedying sexual harassment, but it had little impact because of problems with protocol and enforcement. A decade later, the "Dear Colleague" letter notified universities OCR would aggressively enforce the law, and schools were instructed to do so as well by using the "preponderance of evidence" standard when adjudicating cases. It meant an alleged assailant could be punished by the school regardless of whether the accused faced criminal charges.
Around the country, schools began changing their policies to conform with OCR's edict. From Amherst to Duke, Michigan to Swarthmore, schools have formalized what they will do to prevent sexual assaults and how they will react when they happen. The entire University of California system changed its sexual violence policy last month.
"It's requiring schools to do more than pat the girl on the hand and say, 'I'm really sorry that happened to you,'" says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, who was raped while at Duke. "You're requiring them to expend resources and develop an expertise...designed to make sure sexual violence doesn't interfere with a woman's educational trajectory."
Clark says after she was assaulted as a freshman in 2007, a UNC administrator told her to compare the shattering experience to a football game. What could she have done differently? she was asked.
Dissatisfied by UNC's response, Clark pushed for an anonymous reporting system, which can help a victim get resources and support as well as promote the healing process by validating his or her experience. A 2000 study from the National Institute of Justice found that fewer than 5% of students who were victims of attempted or completed rapes reported it to law enforcement officials.
Pino used the anonymous system to report her assault after she was raped in 2012. As she struggled with her schoolwork after the attack, Pino says an advisor told her she was lazy.
Pino reached out to Clark, a 2011 UNC graduate who was then an administrator at the University of Oregon. They spent months researching Title IX, reviewing court cases and interviewing people. Others who had been sexually assault came forward, with fellow UNC students Landen Gambill and Grace Peter joining them in the complaint. So did Melinda Manning, a former assistant dean of students at the school.
They filed their complaint in January 2013, and OCR opened an investigation that is pending. The department has the ability to revoke federal funding if a school is out of compliance with Title IX, though it typically reaches a resolution agreement in which a school agrees to make changes with monitoring from OCR.
Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, who say they were sexually assaulted at Amherst College and Yale respectively, started the website Know Your IX. They raised more than $11,000 online to start the educational campaign.
Clark and Pino have been working with Caroline Heldman, chair of the political science department at Occidental College in Los Angeles and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, to help other students file complaints against their schools. Heldman estimates they've worked with students at 20 schools that have filed or have a complaint in the works.
"They actually showed every other survivor activist who's filed since on their own across the U.S. that you can do it," says Heldman. "They've pioneered the DIY approach, which has really caused the movement to take off."
As schools take action, they face another type of pressure: to act as judge and jury.
When there is an allegation of sexual assault involving students, the school must investigate and rule. Concerns over due process stem from the "preponderance of evidence" standard, which some contend is too low. At many schools, code of conduct violations regarding sexual assault are often heard by the same disciplinary panels that handle plagiarism, vandalism and underage drinking.
"When you're accusing someone of something as serious as rape, that is a margin of error that makes us extremely uncomfortable," said Catherine Sevcenko, the litigation coordinator for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "It's the combination of the stigma and the low standard of proof and the lack of judicial suggestions that we think is a recipe for disaster."
Advocates applaud the change as one that has leveled the field for victims after years of campus investigations that left them feeling victimized all over again.
"We live in a world where three rapists out of a 100 will ever spend a day in jail. We routinely disbelieve victims. Prosecutors routinely refuse to take on cases, and juries routinely fail to convict perpetrators," Bolger says. "So I don't think it should be so surprising in a world where a policeman will refuse to investigate a case, that an administrator would do the same."
Same for athletes?
Laura Dunn says she was raped 10 years ago by two crew teammates as a freshman at Wisconsin. Dunn found no recourse on campus. One of the men graduated by the time she reported the alleged assault in 2005, and it took the school nine months to decide not to pursue disciplinary charges against the other student.
Dunn filed a Title IX complaint with OCR in 2006, contending that the lengthy delay contributed to a hostile educational environment that prompted her to quit the crew team, but the office found the school did not violate the law.
The "Dear Colleage" letter now advises schools that investigations should be completed within 60 days.
"I knew others on campus, but no one dared to do anything," says Dunn who has founded the nonprofit SurvJustice to help survivors and is finishing her third year of law school at the University of Maryland. "Whereas now (with) these big groups of complainants, I am shocked."
When an athlete is accused of a sexual assault, the issue takes on an added level of complexity. Alleged victims, advocates and the news media can question whether the school or athletic department is protecting the athlete. And in some cases, their suspicions are warranted.
In 2012, OCR opened a compliance review at the University of Montana after news reports that two female students had been sexually assaulted by football players. The school commissioned an independent investigation to examine how the school handled these cases generally, during which it received seven additional reports of sexual assaults.
An investigation by the Department of Justice found several issues with Montana's handling of sexual assault cases for all students. The department also found that, in a three-year span, six football players "were accused of aiding, attempting or committing sexual assault through the University's complaint procedures. Three of these players were involved in an assault where the University did not initiate (Student Conduct Code) proceedings until almost a year after the coach had notice that the victim had filed a report with the Missoula Police Department."
The DOJ required a number of reforms — including revising policies, increased training, complaint tracking and education climate assessments — and the school received a $297,000 grant from the department's Office on Violence Against Women.
"It feels good to be on this side of it as opposed to what it was like trying to walk through it initially," says Teresa Branch, vice president for student affairs. "It's not always easy to be an example, but we've come through it better for it."
At Florida State, the issue of who knew what and when is not as clear. Administrators did not attempt to interview Winston about the alleged incident until January 2014 — 14 months after it had been reported and two weeks after the football team won a national championship.
Last week, USA TODAY Sports reported that the school suspended its investigation, at least in part, because Winston refused to answer questions. Experts agreed non-cooperation is not grounds to stop an investigation, and a lawyer for the woman said he expects FSU to press code of conduct charges.
In response to a New York Times article last week detailing failings of the Tallahassee police and FSU investigations, the school issued a statement that said, in part, "Like other colleges and universities that are grappling with this issue, we actively provide programs and educate students on safe behavior, the meaning of consent and how to properly report cases of sexual misconduct."
At least three other current investigations by OCR include claims that a school mishandled allegations of sexual assault against an athlete, including at Michigan, Michigan State and the University of Connecticut.
"Schools need to ensure their process is the same regardless of who the student is," says Dunn, "and find individuals who are objective to investigate."