Action Project

A tale of two stories as state, federal entities work to combat sexual assault

One of the themes of the Madison Women's March in January was combating sexual assault. 

Image By: Caitlin Rowe

At a time when many aspects of the UW System have encountered politicization, increasing reporting and investigation of sexual assault on college campuses has become an area of bipartisan support at the Capitol.

Both Republicans and Democrats signed onto a bill last session designed to make it easier for survivors who had been drinking to go to law enforcement. Advocates are pushing for further progress: providing more resources for survivors of sexual assault on campus and demanding the state Department of Justice do more to clear its backlog of rape kits.

But at the same time, federal protections for sexual assault survivors are becoming more uncertain, with major pieces of former President Barack Obama’s legacy on the issue in danger of being rolled back under a Republican executive branch. While some cheer this as a potential win for civil liberties, others argue it will irreparably harm the experience of survivors nationwide.

Progress in state Legislature

One example is a bipartisan law approved last session which would exempt survivors or witnesses of sexual assault from punishment if they had been drinking underage. Authored by state Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, and state Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, the measure was backed by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, the UW-Madison Police Department and state Attorney General Brad Schimel.

While Ballweg said that she hasn’t seen data yet on whether the law has increased reporting of sexual assault on campuses, UW-Madison announced last week that 325 sexual assaults were reported last year, a 50 percent increase from 2015.

Other states with similar measures have seen an increase in reporting, Ballweg said.

“Folks understand they do have amnesty,” Ballweg said. “I would think it’ll have a positive impact.”

Before the law, many police departments, including UWPD, had guidelines stating they would not give drinking tickets to survivors or bystanders. But not every agency had such a policy in place, and because it was not codified into law, it was inconsistently enforced.

“We see increases in numbers in other states that have done this, but the guideline wasn’t necessarily well known,” Ballweg said. “Students needed to know that this would be the same law whether they were in their dorm or off campus.”

Cassidy Schroeder, chair of Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment at UW-Madison, said members of PAVE lobbied and worked with legislators on the bill.

“It was cool to see our [staff members] lobbying and hanging out with these legislators who really cared,” Schroeder said. “And I was happy the bill had such bipartisan support, with everyone saying ‘Yes, this is a good rule.’”

Empowered by this success, students are lobbying legislators for further action. Last month, UW System Student Representatives lobbied legislators on codifying a requirement that each campus have a violence prevention specialist, a trained advocate for survivors of sexual assault who would be required to report any crime to law enforcement.

Some legislators, including state Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, have expressed support for the idea.

“It should be addressed and if someone is in that situation, there should be someone there to help them and walk them through what's next; being respectful to the person who has suffered from assault and being an advocate,” Billings told The Daily Cardinal last month.

Other lawmakers, including Ballweg, have said that they support providing advocates for survivors but that they would rather that aid come via non-profit groups.

“Local non-profit sexual assault groups do offer services and we hope these partnerships can be made stronger so students can know how to seek help,” Ballweg said. “Victims aren’t always ready to go to law enforcement. So they need to know where they can go to get help for themselves.”

Uncertainty at federal level

But while state legislators seek out ways to improve reporting at Wisconsin campuses, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated it may be considering rolling back one of the principal protections for sexual assault survivors.

Under the Obama Administration, Title IX was used as a powerful tool to ensure colleges took steps to improve the reporting and investigation of sexual assault on their campuses. Passed in 1972, Title IX states that no education program receiving federal aid can discriminate or exclude participants on the basis of gender.

Until recently, that provision had not been associated with sexual assault and was perhaps most famous for increasing the visibility of women’s athletics at colleges nationwide. But in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education dropped the hammer on higher education.

In the now infamous “Dear Colleague Letter,” the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said sexual harassment and assault “interferes with students' right to receive an education free from discrimination and that schools must “take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence."

This interpretation of Title IX was cheered by advocates and dozens of universities, including UW-Madison, found themselves under investigation by the Department of Education for potential violations.


“At a federal level it dictates a lot of the work college campuses do because there are repercussions,” Schroeder said, noting the Department of Education can fine campuses for violations and will work with schools to ensure protocols surrounding prevention, reporting and enforcement are strengthened.

“Part of what they do, what I think is the positive, important spin on it … is to say ‘this is why your system isn’t working, here’s what you can do to fix it.’”

But this could be set to change under the Trump administration. New Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has not confirmed whether or not she will change the 2011 guidance, saying at her confirmation hearing in January that it was “premature” to make such a statement.

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim ... as well as those who are accused,” DeVos said at the hearing.

And evangelical leader and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. has indicated that he will use his position as chair of Trump’s higher education taskforce to roll back Title IX.

“[Fallwell] has an interest in eliminating what he feels are overreaches by the federal government, particularly the Department of Education, as pertains to colleges and universities across the country,” Liberty University spokesperson Lee Stevens said after Falwell's appointment. “Title IX is one of the areas he mentioned where there is over-regulation."

Such moves have been cheered by civil liberties groups, who allege that guidelines set forth in the “Dear Colleague Letter” have gone too far and infringe on the due process rights of accused perpetrators. Multiple lawsuits challenging the policies have sprung up, including a 2016 suit from a University of Virginia law student who was expelled after having sex with an intoxicated student in 2013.

“Following the law isn’t optional, and discontent with the 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter is widespread and well-documented,” Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Executive Director Robert Shibley said. “Hardly a week goes by without new headlines pointing to the failure of the status quo on campus. OCR has acted as though decreasing due process rights will increase justice. In fact, the opposite is true. Real people’s lives are being irreparably harmed.”

But advocates for survivors say that any legal or executive changes to Title IX would be a blow.

“I like to think that even if Title IX was repealed, colleges truly have their students well-being at heart and I think the reason folks go into higher education is to help people,” Schroeder said.

“I do worry about what that means if there is no higher power to hold people accountable,” she added, noting that “if you don’t have that enforcer or person who is neutral … I worry that won’t happen [if you roll back Title IX].”

State lawmakers have said that they believe campuses should continue to track and report sexual assaults, even if federal sanctions are eliminated.

“Whether the federal government is or not, the campus population as a whole is interested in maintaining data and they want to be sure they’re making progress in these areas,” Ballweg said, adding that she was “not familiar” of any instances in which accused perpetrators were not given due process rights.

Schroeder said that she was hopeful the university would continue to maintain its higher standards and expressed confidence activists would hold administrators accountable.

“I hope universities would make those choices and I hope activists on campus would push for those things and say that our campus isn’t safe to our students without x, y and z in place,” Schroeder said. “I hope that our universities would still protect students. Activism on this campus is incredible and it comes from so many places, and I would hope [the university] wouldn’t repeal the good things they started.”

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