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Following White House Lead, Local Colleges Look Into Sexual Assault Surveys

Javcon117 via flickr

During the last General Assembly session, Del. Jon Cardin introduced a bill that would have required state colleges and universities to survey their students about the atmosphere on their campuses regarding sexual assault.

But officials from Maryland’s higher education establishment balked.

Dr. Andrew Nichols, former research director at the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), argued during a committee hearing that the bill was premature because Maryland was waiting for the White House to release its findings and that such a survey wouldn’t “provide you the amount or the appropriate data” necessary to design methods to deal with sexual assault on specific campuses. Officials from Frostburg State University, Towson University, and the Maryland Independent College and University Association also opposed the bill. It died in committee.

Since then, however, the White House issued its report on sexual assault on college campuses and suggested the federal government might require just such a survey by 2016. The Department of Justice is planning a pilot survey in conjunction with Rutgers University. And Maryland’s higher education establishment has changed its tune.

Maryland colleges and universities are revising their sexual assault policies in response to last month’s White House report. While there is no deadline for schools to make these revisions, MHEC Acting Secretary Catherine Shultz stated that conducting student surveys is something that schools are “definitely considering,” and that “it’s also quite possible that some institutions will initiate their own [survey] at this time,” which would mean that Maryland might have a policy in place before the federal government issues its potential mandate in 2016.

This comes as two schools in Maryland – Frostburg State University and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) – are facing complaints of alleged mishandling of sexual assault complaints on their campuses. Frostburg is under federal investigation.

In a statement to WYPR, Frostburg said the investigation is “related to an off-campus incident which was adjudicated by the university in 2013” and that the school is fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The Baltimore Sun interviewed a former Frostburg student who revealed that she filed the complaint because she believes the school failed to appropriately explain her rights or protect her from harassment by her attacker.

This month, The Huffington Post reported that several Johns Hopkins students filed federal complaints against the school, alleging that school officials’ failure to notify students of an alleged gang rape at an off-campus fraternity party violated federal law. The Baltimore Sun confirmed Saturday that the fraternity in question has been suspended through the next school year.

The White House report cited a National Institute of Justice study that found that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college years, but few victims report the incidents to police or campus officials.

Surveys similar to the one the White House is suggesting, which collect data from students anonymously, have been conducted by the University of New Hampshire and University of Montana, among others. The White House designed a tool kit to help schools design surveys. Here is a suggested question from the tool kit:

Please indicate your level of agreement to the following statements: strongly agree, agree, neither agree/disagree, disagree, strongly disagree, don’t know.

a. If a friend or I were sexually assaulted, I know where to go to get help.

b. I understand [University]’s formal procedures to address complaints of sexual assault.

c. I have confidence that [University] administers the formal procedures to address complaints of sexual assault fairly.

Surveys are a keystone of the White House recommendations. MHEC’sShultz said the commission, “as well as the institutions, are looking forward to the results of the Justice Department’s pilot climate campus study,” which may provide data about best practices.