By Nell Gluckman
In an unprecedented move on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of colleges that are under investigation for how they handle sexual abuse and harassment complaints.
None of Maine’s colleges was on the list, which administrators in Maine say is because the schools have made a concerted effort in recent years to change how to process and respond to complaints of sexual violence.
“We’ve been thinking about this here for many years,” said Robert Dana, the University of Maine’s vice president for student affairs, on Tuesday. “Things change, as times change, as society has changed.”
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter providing guidance to schools across the country for how to handle sexual violence, Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said.
Dana said UMaine opened an office of sexual assault and violence prevention in August 2013, largely in response to that letter and a general push from President Barack Obama’s administration to address the subject. The new office at UMaine processes all sexual abuse complaints, conducts investigations and offers support for victims.
The University of Southern Maine began to change its approach to sexual harassment and abuse even before the 2011 letter, thanks to a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women, according to Joy Pufhal, dean of students.
“With the funds, we started the Campus Safety Project,” she said. The largest portion of the funding went towards the project coordinator, whose role was to train staff on how to respond when receiving a sexual violence complaint, build awareness of the issue among students and make sure the university is in compliance with federal regulations.
She said USM contracts with community groups Family Crisis Services, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine and Safe Voices in Lewiston to offer students counseling services.
Meanwhile, the federal government continues its efforts to bring the issue of sexual violence on campuses into the limelight.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration released a set of guidelines meant to help colleges address sexual assault on campuses. The report calls on colleges to conduct a climate survey to determine the prevalence of sexual assault on campus and to have a victim advocate available for confidential conversations. It offers clarity on colleges’ obligation to prevent and respond to sexual violence and a series of steps to make students’ rights and enforcement data more transparent, among other guidelines.
“One in five women is sexually assaulted in college,” the report states. “Most often, it’s by someone she knows — and also most often, she does not report what happened.”
Officials at USM and UMaine said their schools are in compliance with the new federal guidelines, for the most part. Pufhal said USM will need to create a campus climate survey that specifically addresses sexual violence.
At UMaine, there were nine sexual offenses in 2010 and six in both 2011 and 2012, according to data all colleges are required to publish. Dana said that in 2013, he believes that upwards of 30 reports were made.
He said the dramatic increase is a function of the way incidents are reported, not a rise of sexual violence on campus.
“The good news is that they did go up, and Liz is able to interact with all these people in a very holistic way,” he said, referring to Elizabeth Lavoie, coordinator of the office of sexual assault and violence prevention.
At USM, students reported seven sexual offenses in 2010, 10 in 2011 and 15 in 2012.
Pufhal said the increase “reflects a trust amongst the students in the process. People knew what to do when it happened to them.”
Included in the list of schools under investigation for noncompliance with federal guidelines are Dartmouth College, Amherst College, Harvard College, Boston University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.