A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Anna Orso examined the case of several 2016 sexual assaults allegedly involving students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The details are of course specific to that prestigious art academy on North Broad Street, but the problems discussed fit patterns found across the country. Unfortunately, changes in federal policy being considered by Trump’s Secretary of Education will not help in resolving such cases in the future.
Weeks after two female students woke up in an apartment with a male student whom they claim raped them, the women reported the incident to PAFA’s Title IX coordinator. (Title IX is a section of federal higher education law that prohibits sexual harassment, including sexual assault.) A panel later concluded that the man was guilty of violating student conduct rules, and he was expelled from PAFA and banished from campus. He maintains his innocence.
Unsatisfied with PAFA’s actions, one of the women reported the alleged assault to Philadelphia police, but was eventually told that the district attorney found the evidence too weak for prosecution. A PAFA instructor and an advisory board member became involved as advocates, but their involvement with the school ended.
The PAFA case is complex, but two facets are particularly noteworthy at this moment, when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is on the brink of releasing new Title IX regulations. If the final version is similar to the draft regulations published last year, cases like the one at PAFA will be treated differently than now—and not in a good way.
First, DeVos’ new regulations will remove the necessity of responding to all cases of sexual assault, not just the ones on campus. The PAFA incident began in an off-campus bar and was finished in an off-campus apartment. PAFA or any other institution of higher education would not be required to tackle a case like this involving off-campus behavior.
Second, DeVos writes well over 100 pages about college sexual assault, but barely mentions the role of alcohol. This is despite mounting public health evidence that alcohol is involved in a majority of cases of college sexual assault.
I was a co-author of the largest study of intoxicated rape so far using representative samples of both colleges and students. In a single academic year, one out of 20 college women experienced rape, with over 70% of those raped too intoxicated to give consent. Recent reviews of the research literature and several massive studies of large universities lead to similar conclusions.
Simply saying alcohol causes sexual assault is incorrect, but alcohol plays a crucial role in a majority of college cases. Blaming the victim for heavy alcohol use alone is never justified, but universities should focus on tempering binge drinking by all concerned. Nuance is needed, for alcohol complicates everything, ranging from the increased vulnerability of victims, the higher likelihood of perpetration, and the difficulty of providing a fair hearing to victim and perpetrator alike. Ignoring alcohol’s role in what will be one of the most important pieces of federal policy about sexual assault is a serious mistake.
Critics, including the nation’s leading higher education organizations as well as victims’ advocates, have pointed out other serious problems with the proposed regulations, but these two issues are enough by themselves to justify rethinking.
The PAFA case is hardly unique: American institutions of higher education often struggle with these problems. Whatever her intentions, Secretary DeVos will make that struggle even more difficult and less successful. It is time for her to reconsider these proposed regulations, so that future cases like the PAFA one can be avoided or at least fairly adjudicated.