Know Your Rights: Sexual Violence on Campus

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Know Your Rights: Sexual Violence on Campus

By Beccah Golubock Watson
Margaret Fund Fellow, National Women’s Law Center

In a 2009 study, nearly 20% of undergraduate women surveyed reported that they experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while enrolled in college. Below is a basic understanding of your rights under Title IX, a federal law.

What is Title IX, and how does it apply to sexual assault?

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits all discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding, which includes nearly all public schools, colleges, and universities. The ban on sex discrimination includes sexual harassment, rape, and sexual assault.

How are sexual assault and sexual harassment defined?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature and can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is one form of sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX.

Sexual assault refers to physical sexual acts done against a person’s will or when a person is incapable of consenting. This can include situations in which a person is unable to give consent due to drug or alcohol use.

When do schools have to address a complaint of sexual harassment and sexual assault?

Title IX requires schools to take effective steps to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. A school must promptly investigate any complaint of sexual assault that a student files with a school — even for a sexual assault occurring off campus in a school-sponsored program. The school may also need to take immediate steps to protect the student from further harassment or assault. Even without a complaint from a student, a school must promptly investigate if the problem of sexual assault is widespread or well-known to students and staff.

When a school learns of a possible sexual assault, it must take immediate steps to conduct an investigation that is prompt, thorough, and impartial. In addition, a school is required to have a “grievance process” (a process by which a school handles complaints) that enables you to file complaints about sexual violence. School officials or school policies must not discourage you from reporting your assault or pursuing your complaint. Schools may use general grievance or disciplinary procedures to handle sexual assault cases, so long as they respect students’ right to a prompt and equitable resolution of their complaints.

Sexual assault is almost always a crime, as well as a Title IX violation. Your school is required to conduct a Title IX investigation whether or not the police are investigating, because conduct may be unlawful under Title IX even if the police do not have sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges.

What other steps must a school take in response to sexual assault and sexual harassment?

In addition to the preventative measures outlined below, a school must take immediate and effective action if an investigation reveals instances of harassment or assault. Schools can be liable for failing to address harassment that is severe or pervasive enough to create a “hostile environment.” This means that a sexual assault, and any sexual harassment resulting from it, interferes with a student’s ability to benefit from educational opportunities, including extracurricular activities and sports. One instance of rape is enough to create a hostile environment, and other kinds of sexual harassment and sexual assault can rise to that level, depending on the circumstances. Schools that fail to stop, remedy, and prevent further sexual assaults are violating Title IX.

What steps must a school take to prevent sexual assault from happening?

Schools must take a number of actions, independent of any individual report of sexual assault, including:

  • Grievance procedures. Every school must adopt and publish procedures to handle all complaints of sexual harassment and assault.
  • Title IX Coordinator. Every school must designate a person, called a Title IX Coordinator, who oversees all Title IX complaints and identifies and addresses any problems with the way the school is handling sexual assault.
  • Training. Employees must receive effective training on how to recognize and report harassment. These employees could include professors, school law enforcement employees, administrators, counselors, general counsels, health personnel, and resident advisors.
  • Notice of nondiscrimination. Schools must distribute a notice of nondiscrimination to all students, such as by posting it on their website, on campus, or in printed publications. It must also refer students to the school’s Title IX Coordinator.

What are the legal options if a school does not appear to be in compliance with Title IX?

Sometimes bringing a compliance problem to the school’s attention is enough to get it resolved, and Title IX prohibits schools from retaliating against someone for reporting or complaining about a possible violation.

You also can file a complaint with OCR online or file a lawsuit in federal court. There are pros and cons to both of those options, so you should talk with a lawyer about your options (although you do not need to have a lawyer to file a complaint with OCR).

For help or information, please contact the National Women’s Law Center at, or (202) 588-5180.

Beccah Golubock Watson is the Margaret Fund Fellow for Education & Employment at the National Women’s Law Center. Previously, she was the Georgetown Women’s Law and Public Policy Program Fellow at the National Partnership for Women & Families, where she focused on workplace fairness.

YWCA Week Without ViolenceThis post is part of the YWCA Week Without Violence™ 2013 Blog Carnival. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ywcaWWV.

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