Where We Stand

Ending sexual assault on campus

By Randi Weingarten, AFT President

Sexual assault is part of my truth. As I shared in a recent column for Jezebel, I was sexually assaulted just after my junior year in college. In the ensuing decades—from college to law school, through my career as a lawyer, teacher and union leader—that one night has never left me.

I never wanted to share this publicly. That changed after reading story after story of young women who came forward to tell their own truths—which, unfortunately, in many instances, have included painful accounts about how their college campuses failed to handle these women’s accusations properly.

As the president of a union that represents hundreds of thousands of higher education faculty, professional staff and graduate employees, as well as one whose members have gone or want to go to college, I knew that we could be part of the change that these courageous young women started. And as a survivor myself, I knew that we had to be.

Here are the facts: One in four women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college. Ninety percent of campus rapists are repeat offenders.

Under federal law, most notably Title IX and the Clery Act, students are guaranteed a right to education free from sexual violence and harassment. Despite this, the Department of Education is investigating 97 colleges and universities for failing to protect students, as Title IX requires, in their handling of sexual assault cases.

To stop the epidemic of sexual violence that persists on campuses across the country, we must change the way that colleges and universities handle the cases where women do speak out, but more important, we must change the culture that keeps women from speaking out. Our union can be part of the solution. In some places we already are.

At the State University of New York’s 64 campuses, for instance, where United University Professions represents workers, the board of trustees released a comprehensive new policy in December. It establishes a “Bill of Rights” for victims of sexual assault. Under this bill, survivors are made to repeat their stories as few times as possible and can decide whether they want to engage law enforcement free from pressure from college officials. And it clearly defines “affirmative consent.”

SUNY is creating a best practice guide for freshman orientation, a clear and confidential reporting protocol and a campus climate assessment to gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. And last May, the UUP passed a resolution to press SUNY administrators to implement U.S. Senate recommendations to respond to sexual assault on college campuses.

Ending sexual assault on campus is going to take many partners: students, administrators, staff and their unions. It will take putting sound policies in place on campus and implementing these policies faithfully. It will take holding institutions accountable through legislation, like the bill introduced in Congress by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). The bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act would create incentives for schools to take proactive steps to protect their students and rid their campuses of sexual predators.

And it will take more efforts like what we’ve seen at SUNY, where we step forward to speak out for our students and demand the justice and support they deserve. This could include working to ensure that all faculty and staff have the training necessary to listen to a survivor, and that there is a designated safe place on campus where survivors can go for help. Perhaps safety should have as much of a premium in college rankings as, say, football or basketball. For far too long, survivors of campus sexual assault have suffered in silence. We can help them find their voice. I’m not interested in reliving my experience or pinning culpability on anyone, but I shared what I went through to join the growing chorus for change. I hope you will join me as we fight to make every campus a place where all students can pursue their dreams without fear.

AFT On Campus, Spring 2015 Download PDF (3.75 MB)
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