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Michigan senators join effort to improve sexual assault prevention on campuses

Apr 12, 2016

Credit Kai Hendry/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/hendry/

Michigan’s two U.S. senators have signed onto a letter requesting additional funding to improve sexual assault prevention on college campuses.

U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters were among 22 senators requesting over $137 million for next year for the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, as well as funding for 11 new employees at the Clery Act Compliance Team.

OCR handles investigations into possible Title IX violations by schools.  

According to the senators’ letter, OCR was investigating 210 cases from 196 different postsecondary institutions, as of this year – three times the number of cases in 2014. Clery Act investigations are also up: last year saw 87 complaints, up 16 from 2012. Those investigations are handled by the Clery Act Compliance Team.

Both investigative units are short-staffed, the senators write. OCR has lost half of its size since its formation 1980 due to budget cuts, and the CACT has a staff of 19.

In an interview, Senator Peters said these offices badly need lawmakers' help. 

"They have been understaffed for some time, they've seen complaints increase dramatically, and yet are dealing with fewer resources," he said. "At the same time, we are seeing rising assault rates across the country."

Peters added that additional legislation is still needed to improve oversight in this area.

Anna Voremberg, managing director of the organization End Rape On Campus, said the problem of sexual assault response goes beyond OCR. She said she believes the staff there are working hard with what they have.

More to the point, Voremberg said, is the fact that there are any Title IX investigations at all. Schools should be doing a better job of handling these cases, she said, and state legislatures should tackle the specific issues in their public schools. 

"Campus sexual assault is preventable; Title IX violations are preventable," she said. "We know that these violations are preventable, but unfortunately schools are reticent and are dragging their feet in making Title IX a priority on their campuses."

Right now, the University of Michigan and Grand Valley State are under investigation with the Department of Education.

Last year, an OCR report on Michigan State University found the school’s investigations typically took between seven and nine months, despite the required deadline of 60 days. Like the federal office, MSU’s team was understaffed, with only two full-time employees tasked with handling around 100 cases between 2013 and 2014.

MSU has since made changes to their Title IX office and added staffers.

The Universiity of Michigan has also taken steps to reduce sexual misconduct on campus. Last month, the school announced updates to its sexual misconduct policy, including a revised definition of consent.

For Voremberg, there's still more work to be done across the country, but on the state level:

"If state governments start looking at what the specific problems are on their campuses, I think we'll have a better idea of what we're really looking at," she said.