Title IX is a federal guideline that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment or violence such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion. Every higher-ed institution has a responsibility to respond promptly and effectively to address sexual misconduct.
According to the Justice Department, 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual misconduct during her college years. 60% of assaults occur in the residence halls. 90% percent of women who are sexually assaulted in college know the perpetrator.
Given the incredibly high numbers, it is crucial that HBCUs conduct more programming surrounding violence against women and support for survivors. In the world of sexual assaults on HBCU campuses, the notion of consent and how it should be defined often appears to fall into a “sunken place.” Studies have consistently shown that reports of sexual misconduct on HBCUs are lower than those at predominantly white institutions, the numbers we see at HBCUs could follow trends of non-reporting, consistent with national statistics.
Consent is the key to prohibiting campus rape culture and reducing fear of reporting. The nature of rape and sexual assault has changed. People are in less danger of an unknown assailant jumping out of the bushes to sexually assault them. A perpetrator is usually a person whom the survivor knows; a person for whom they have developed some form of a relationship of trust.
Consent, at its core, is about communication and can be limited. Consent to oral sex, doesn’t mean that she has consent for penetration. Consent in the the past, does not greenlight future sexual encounters. A person who is unconscious or otherwise deemed incapacitated cannot cognitively consent to sexual activity.
For example, if a person agrees to have hot chocolate, started drinking it, and then passed out before finishing it, you would not keep pouring it down his throat. Why? Because unconscious people don’t want hot chocolate, and the same is true for sex.
HBCU administrators must stop merely stating that they will not tolerate sexual assault, but must also be proactive in seeking and providing adequate training and resources dedicated to addressing this issue. It is not enough to have town hall meetings and forums about this topic. What occurs after the talks are what matters most.
The university’s health center should be trained to adequately screen for intimate partner violence and sexual assault. What good does it accomplish if the health center for which students often pay a “health fee” cannot provide these kinds of services to students? A properly trained health center located on campus, reduces the likelihood of a complainant having to tell their story more than once to a health care provider, and can also reduce the changes of rape kits being lost or not properly included in evidence.
From an enrollment management perspective, the lack of adequate response by the university to appropriately redress sexual misconduct can lower retention and stifle graduation rates. If the survivor and other students witness that there is little to no support by the institution, then that could cause not only the survivor, but others to enroll into neighboring PWIs where they feel safe and supported. Or worse, never return to college again. The challenge is that many HBCUs focus on their economic issues but have not created policies that are transparent for dealing with sexual assaults. The Title IX Coordinator is not identified and easily accessible.
The institution must have a trained designated person who is responsible for investigating sexual assault claims. This person is known as the University Title IX Coordinator. There must also be a widely distributed policy on sexual misconduct that is easily accessible to the entire campus community, outlining the investigative process, and the rights of the Complainant and Respondent. The institution should be willing to impose interim measures to ensure the safety of all parties involved, pending the outcome of the university’s investigative process. Interim measure can include, changing the residence hall of the respondent, reassignment of courses, and in exigent circumstances, the temporary removal of the respondent from campus until the investigation is complete.
HBCUs are, at times, very reluctant to discipline that “good black young man, whose trying to do something with his life” because there are so few of them enrolled to begin with. This position unduly burdens the complainant to protect the respondent. In addition, black women are often constructed to be promiscuous and therefore, are deemed willing participants who are incapable of being sexually assaulted. These narratives are not only irresponsible, but they tend to silence and discourage survivors from going forward with their claims of sexual assault once they have reported it. Or intimidates them from coming forward at all.
A solution is that HBCUs should conduct a climate survey in the following areas: campus climate related to sexual assault and misconduct; awareness of resources and reporting options; and prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and interpersonal violence. The climate survey report will serve to establish a baseline for assessing HBCUs progress in ongoing efforts to address these issues, and as a resource to sustain the community’s commitment to work together to ensure a safe and inclusive campus.
HBCUs matter and black women matter. We all have a fiduciary responsibility to provide support and protection to both, equally.