Gail Kerr: Vanderbilt sex assault cases raise tough questions

So who is right?

Six current and former Vanderbilt female students who allege, among other things, that the university responded inadequately to reports they were sexually assaulted.

Or university officials, who maintain they have gone beyond the call to put in programs and policies that protect women and offer them help when an assault happens.

This is serious stuff.

It's easy to want to believe the women, especially Sarah O'Brien, who took the lead on filing the complaint with federal officials. It is the media's policy, including The Tennessean's, not to report the names of sexual assault victims. But she asked that her name be used.

That is incredibly brave and makes you want to believe everything she is saying. Why would these six women subject themselves to court and public scrutiny if what they are saying were not true?

On the other hand, Vanderbilt deserves enormous credit for acting quickly when four now-former football players were accused of brutally and repeatedly raping an unconscious female student this summer. The school immediately ousted the players not just from the team, but from the campus.

In 2011, the university went through a detailed review of all policies about how it deals with sexual assault. The federal government required all campuses throughout the United States to do that. But Vanderbilt opted to beat that deadline and do it on its own.

It's easy for school officials to offer platitudes to the public, saying they have "raised awareness" and provided education classes about violence to all incoming freshmen. It's harder to do what Vanderbilt did: transfer the investigation of all such cases to people with the power and knowledge to really look into what happened and take appropriate action.

What happened at Vanderbilt is, unfortunately, not that unusual. A 1990 law called the Clary Act, which requires colleges to collect and disclose crime statistics, says that as many as one-fourth of female students will experience rape or attempted rape while they are in college. If that doesn't shock you to the core, you're a cold soul.

Events such as the alleged Vanderbilt rape by football players, all of whom are moving through the criminal justice system, trigger public outcry and then community support for women who are becoming more willing to report what happened to them and to speak openly and stand with one another in prevention efforts.

And for that reason, O'Brien and her five co-filers deserve every ounce of respect and open-mindedness the federal government can offer to see if their complaints have substance.

The complaint was filed with the Office of Civil Rights. It will evaluate it and can dismiss it or open a formal investigation. From there, if found to be truthful, the federal government can order Vanderbilt to make changes, settle or pay penalties.

O'Brien said that she was sexually assaulted in 2010. She said women are discouraged from reporting sexual violence and that university officials don't follow through. Help and education are lacking, she said. The other complaints range in the amount of detail they present, some with little information.

Vanderbilt spokeswoman Beth Fortune said the school had not received a copy of the complaint, but "we take the concerns of our students very seriously." A side note: Fortune is a well-respected member of the community who is active politically and a champion of women's rights. There is no way on this planet she would work for a university that condoned violence against women.

"The big thing for all of us involved is to give voice to a problem that is not addressed properly on our campus," O'Brien said.

Ultimately, the complaint will shake itself out, and whatever consequences come of it will be faced.

The important thing is sexual assault against women is no longer a tolerable secret.


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