With three open federal investigations into possible violations in handling sexual assault cases, the University of Wisconsin has the fourth highest number of probes in the nation, according to Department of Education numbers.
The investigations regard Title IX, a federal law that grants anyone at a federally-funded education institution the right to be free of gender discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and sexual violence.
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Generally with Title IX violations, complainants feel there is a hostile environment at the university, despite discrimination protection, Tonya Schmidt, assistant dean of students and director of student Title IX and Clery compliance, said.
Details regarding the three investigations are currently unavailable due to federal privacy law, but UW spokesperson John Lucas said UW is committed to responding to sexual misconduct with fair and thorough investigations.
“UW-Madison is cooperating fully with the Office for Civil Rights as it investigates complaints from three of our students,” Lucas said.
Only Stanford University, Kansas State University and Saint Mary’s College of Maryland had more sexual violence investigations as of December 2015, with four probes each.
UW is in the midst of what Erin Thornley-Parisi, spokesperson for Dane County Rape Crisis Center, called a sexual violence “epidemic.”
“We have made some advances, [but] I don’t think we’re even close to where we need to be,” Thornley-Parisi said.
Reports of sexual assault at UW are on the rise, according to data from the Dean of Students Office and as first reported by the Capital Times. From 2011 to 2013, there were more than 120 reports of sexual assault each year. In 2014, that number rose to 172. As of Dec. 4, 2015, there were 203 reports of sexual assault on campus.
According to the data, from 2011 to 2014, eight to 13 percent of reports turned into investigations. In 2015, only 5 percent of reported cases were investigated.
Schmidt said the lack of investigations is because more than half of the reported cases are shared with a confidential resource on campus and therefore cannot be investigated. She said she hopes the federal investigations will cast a national spotlight on the issue and encourage victims to speak out.
Thornley-Parisi said students, particularly women, experience a lack of community support when telling their stories.
Victim blaming deters many women from reporting, Thornley-Parisi said. If an investigation takes place, a lot of attention is placed on the victim’s actions and if they were drinking, and can wrongly become a defining part of the victim’s character, she said.
If an assault includes drinking or if the assault is not penetrative, people do not think the assault is “that bad,” Thornley-Parisi said. Women are forced to change the way they live — how they dress, what they say, how late they are out — instead of changing flawed attitudes toward assault, she said.
“What we’ve done is normalized most sexual assault … instead of addressing the societal changes that need to take place,” Thornley-Parisi said.
Schmidt said the process for sexual assault cases on campus is currently undergoing revision. UW has a Title IX consultation team that meets weekly to look for improvements, among other efforts, she said.
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Schmidt said campus groups that deal with sexual assault are meeting more regularly in an effort to address the persistent problem of sexual violence.
Still, Thornley-Parisi expressed concern that UW is not giving the issue adequate attention.
“I think the problem is that we don’t take the issue of sexual violence seriously enough to put the work into stopping this epidemic,” she said.