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Two Chicago-area universities have been in the news recently as students and federal officials question how well they handle sexual assault allegations.
At Northwestern, a student is suing the university over claims it failed to follow up on a sexual harassment complaint she filed against a professor. Northwestern officials are disputing the student’s claim. The University of Chicago is being investigated by the United States Department of Education over the way the school handles sexual assault cases. The department is opening a campus-wide investigation after it looked into a single student’s complaint that the university mishandled her case after she accused another student of sexual assault.
As the Northwestern lawsuit and the University of Chicago investigation get underway, alumni and staff at both schools have been circulating petitions calling on their schools to reform their sexual misconduct policies.
“We hope that the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation will be the catalyst to meaningful, permanent improvements in both the response to and prevention of sexual assault,” reads the University of Chicago alumni petition, which was authored by a group of alumni who spearheaded an effort to create a campus sexual assault policy when they were students in the 1990s.
The Northwestern petition calls for institutional reforms and also references other schools facing Title IX lawsuits and federal investigations over sexual assault policy, including Amherst College, Vanderbilt University, Dartmouth University, and the University of Chicago.
Campus sexual assault has long been a complicated and fraught problem for universities. They are required by federal law to report and address incidents, but almost all have different policies on how to do that.
A RedEye report from October found that local sexual assault advocates and university officials said many campus assault policies have been criticized for failing to adequately help students, but universities have nonetheless been slow to change.
"The [colleges] are trying to review and provide justice for what is outside of the campus a felony that veteran prosecutors have a hard time prosecuting," said Diana Newton, the executive director of Porchlight Counseling Services, an Evanston-based counseling center that focuses on college-aged victims of sexual violence. "It gets jumbled and messed up, and sometimes a second victimization can happen."
Though universities are required to report assault allegations to the government, they are not required to report them to the police. Instead, many take disciplinary action themselves. But the effects of those actions can be inconsistent, and some advocates say they run the risk of contributing to the trauma a student who has been assaulted may already be going through.
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