The Climate of Accusations
Do Some Colleges Have a Climate of Accusation?
Since the issuance of the U.S. Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter in 2011, nearly all colleges and universities have suffered from deficits in due process for those accused of sexual misconduct. But not all colleges are the same. Several years of data, court cases, and civil rights complaints show that some colleges also have climates that have become so extreme that parents should be concerned.
A climate of accusation is marked by some or all of the following:
- A deficit of due process protections for students accused of sexual misconduct.
- Atypically high rates of reported sexual assault.
- Civil rights complaints lodged at the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights
- Lawsuits against the schools by the accused.
- A permissive attitude towards stigmatizing the innocent found in incidents of casual, mediatized or politicized accusation and prior to any determination of responsibility.
Some observers may respond that, on the whole, sexual assault and harassment are under reported. We agree. We care about our daughters just as much as our sons. We want the reporting of sexual misconduct to be as safe and reliable as possible. But on this view, high rates of reported crime, civil rights complaints, and lawsuits could only mean that students at these schools are reporting sexual assault with greater accuracy; high rate schools create a “safe environment” for reporting the very crime that some research suggests is already there. We are worried, however, that while rape and sexual assault are indeed under reported on the whole, “better reporting” does not capture what is happening at colleges seized by a climate of accusation.
In short, two distinct phenomena are at work on college campuses today. At some schools, a hostile climate for women is caused by sexual misconduct by male students and, at others, a hostile climate for men is driven by a climate of accusation. One does not need to deny one reality in order to affirm the other. Before sending their children to college, parents need to determine if one or the other climate dominates the campuses they are considering.
What can parents and guidance counselors do?
When sending their children to college, parents deserve to know how schools are handling complaints of sexual misconduct and informal #metoo behavior. In a cultural moment of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct combined with student activism featuring public accusations, parents may prefer colleges with robust due process protections that also make efforts to de-escalate the climate of accusation. In the meantime, what can parents do?
Some concrete steps for families and guidance counselors searching for schools:
- First of all, discuss affirmative consent with your child. A guide for discussion is here. Make sure he or she understands what it means.
- Discuss the current climate of accusation and how affirmative consent in the real world cannot guarantee protection and that’s why you are concerned about the current climate
- Examine the resources on our website to see if you are interested in schools deserving closer scrutiny.
- Send our questions to the admissions officers at the colleges your child has been accepted to and ask for written answers. If they do not answer, ask for a reason.
- Talk with your guidance counselor and other parents about the schools’ track records. Share our questions and, if you get them, the schools’ answers.
- Connect with other families considering the school and, together, ask for more protections for respondents in cases of sexual misconduct.
- If there are signs of a climate of accusation, ask yourself if the school really offers a healthy and rewarding environment for your child.