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Lisa Madigan leads summit on preventing sexual assault on college campuses

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan convened a daylong summit Monday to address increased attention to growing controversy over how colleges and universities deal with alleged sexual assaults.

In society in general, as well as on campus in particular, the crime remains underreported, Madigan told the audience as she kicked off the event.

“Why are people not coming forward?” Madigan asked. “There is an unfortunate belief, and at times a valid one, that you will not be taken seriously.”

Madigan told the audience at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s student center, at 750 S. Halsted St., that her office wrote and is supporting the “Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act.”

She said the proposed legislation would ensure that Illinois colleges and universities develop a clear, comprehensive campus sexual violence plan, including providing detailed incident reporting and university response guidelines; providing victims with an adviser to tell them of their options in reporting the crime and seeking help; and notifying student victims about their rights, including their right to privacy and the protections the university could provide such as obtaining an order of protection. The legislation is sponsored in the Illinois House by Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, and in the Senate by Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields.

Madigan said she also has worked to increase the number of hospital examiners available for such cases to provide victims a reliable contact at the emergency room.

Also at the summit was Julia Dixon, a graduate of the University of Akron in Ohio, who talked about her rape and subsequent experiences during her freshman year at the school. Dixon speaks nationwide as a representative of Chicago-based “Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment,” a nonprofit organization aimed at “shattering the silence of sexual violence.”

Dixon, now a technical writer who lives in Pittsburgh, said she suffered from severe stress after the incident and was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Her assailant, she added, pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Like many victims, she also abused herself — in her case, she said, she stopped eating.

Asked what kind of mandate would help, Dixon said requiring a confidential adviser for assault victims “is a small step that would make a resounding impact.”

The summit also included updates from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights; panel discussions on resources and strategies for colleges and universities to prevent and respond to the issue; and discussions on how colleges, campus police and local law enforcement can work together on the problem.

Karen Mines, chief attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in Chicago, told college and university officials at the meeting that they must be responsible for ensuring that an assault victim isn’t being harassed by the perpetrator’s friends badgering her with questions such as, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘Don’t you know who this person [the perpetrator] is?’ ”

These “retaliatory actions” constitute a violation of the victim’s rights, too, Mines said.

Mines said colleges and universities also must take into account the entire campus even in dealing with individual complaints and design their websites so students can easily find the school’s sexual harassment policies and the person who handles sexual assault complaints.

“Are there ‘hot spots’ on your campus — certain places students don’t want to be ‘on the green’ when walking home at night?” she said. “We know that people talk. Is there a ‘date rape frat’ on campus? What are you doing about that?”

Madigan conceded that some colleges and universities have been more concerned about protecting their reputations than responding effectively to sexual assaults.

But students’ increased activism and greater attention to the issue are turning the tables, she said.

Sexual assaults on campuses nationwide started getting greater media attention last May, when the Obama administration launched a task force to address such assaults. The announcement quoted a study that found that one in five female undergraduate college students is sexually assaulted, usually by someone she knows, but that the incidents seldom go reported. The statistic is based on a study conducted in 2007 for the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice.

Two days after the task-force announcement, the U.S. Department of Education took the unprecedented step of releasing the names of 55 colleges and universities — including the University of Chicago — that had faced a Title IX investigation over their handling of sexual abuse complaints. The department said it would keep an updated list of schools facing such investigations and make the list available to the public.

University of Chicago representatives have said they are cooperating with the inquiry and that the university already created several student programs to deal with the issue, such as the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call, the Bias Response Team, and RSVP (Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention); the growth of confidential resources offered by the Student Counseling Service; and special training for University police officers in responding to acts of sexual violence.

Last August, the White House announced a pilot program to investigate the latest data on the prevalence of sexual assaults on campuses nationwide. The plan calls for colleges to set up prevention programs and talk with students about their experiences and ideas on how to deal with the problem.

Students’ protests also have put the issue in media headlines. One example is Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has carried her extra-long twin dorm mattress around the New York university’s campus since the school year started as her way of protesting the university’s response to her alleged sexual assault.

Sulkowicz, a visual arts major, is making the action her senior thesis and has vowed to continue her protest as long as the student who she says raped her stays at the school.

Politicians have introduced a variety of proposals to address the issue. Last July, more than half a dozen U.S. senators held a news conference on Capitol Hill to announce legislation they hope will make colleges and universities more accountable to rape victims.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., led the initiative, which aims to encourage victims to come forward by proposing that schools no longer be allowed to sanction students who report a violation, such as underage drinking, if they report it in “good faith.”

The proposed legislation also would require schools to use one uniform process for campus disciplinary proceedings, rather than singling out groups such as athletic departments to independently handle such cases.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, told the Associated Press at the time that the bill had some good ideas, such as defining a confidential victim’s advocate. But he said he thought it took a heavy-handed approach and potentially added more intervention to already confusing and overlapping federal laws that govern the way colleges and universities should handle such cases.

“We desperately want to do the right thing, but we need to know what that is, and we need enough flexibility to meet the needs of each individual, unique case,” Hartle told the Associated Press.