The accounts of colleges’ indifference are chilling.
“Are you sure it was rape?” an Amherst College student reported being told. “You should forgive and forget.”
At Harvard University, “my house master and my dean encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” wrote an anonymous undergraduate.
“Why does Tufts want rapists on this campus?” wrote a senior who said his assailant was found responsible for sexual assault by Tufts University, but was initially only given probation.
Testimonials like these from sexual assault victims — some writing anonymously, others stepping fully into the spotlight — have poured out in student newspapers and on blogs on one campus after another in the past year and a half from Emerson, MIT, Brandeis, Brown, and others across the country.
Now, advocates believe these searing accounts are helping to fuel the intense scrutiny colleges find themselves under from the Obama administration and critics who complain of the colleges not taking sexual assault reports seriously enough.
This week, the White House raised the public pressure to a new level, issuing new requirements for colleges to both prevent and respond to violence. The Department of Education issued an unusual finding that Tufts University is violating Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and could lose its federal funding. And the Education Department revealed for the first time the full list of colleges under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assaults, currently 55 schools, including six in Massachusetts.
The latest push from the White House is at least partly in response to a savvy and rapidly expanding crop of young student activists, many of them sexual assault survivors, who have made the issue impossible to ignore. They built informal networks to pass legal and public relations advice from one campus to another in what one called a “domino effect.”
Some went on to create national grass-roots organizations such as Know Your IX to pressure individual universities and the federal government to take the issue seriously.
Suddenly, it is hard to find a college president who has not issued a statement promising to do more and do better in helping victims of sexual violence.
Some of the credit for the blossoming of activism goes back to the Obama administration, which three years ago offered encouragement to students to file government complaints if they felt mistreated.
Colby Bruno is senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, which represents pro bono about 40 to 50 college sexual assault victims a year, including the young woman who filed the complaint against Tufts.
She said her law center went from a 98 percent failure rate five years ago in getting satisfactory resolutions from the colleges for their clients to a 60 percent success rate after the administration's initial 2011 crackdown. More recently, she said, the center has a 90 percent success rate.
Now, with the stringent action against Tufts and the latest guidelines — clearer than ever about what colleges are supposed to do to investigate and adjudicate cases — Bruno said she is thrilled.
“I think victims are going to be treated fairly now,” she said. “It’s not going to be everywhere; there’s going to be some problems just like there always is. . . . But it’s going to mean that no one has an excuse that they didn’t know” the rules.
Many university officials believe their responsibilities under Title IX put them in an impossible situation. Frequently, cases involve acquaintances, no physical evidence, no witnesses, and heavy drinking. Prosecutors often refuse to pursue them, an option colleges do not have.
“I think that colleges have always taken the issue seriously, but they haven’t always handled it as smoothly as certainly the victims advocate groups would like,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel of the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents.
Meloy said many institutions did not have clear policies on how to respond to an allegation because they are not used to seeing a high volume of cases. “Colleges are getting better prepared for the case when it comes up,” she said.
Critics, however, say that it was advantageous for many years for schools to go easy on the perpetrators.
“Universities were collectively covering up sexual assault,” said Erin E. Buzuvis, a professor at Western New England School of Law, who co-writes a blog on Title IX.
Until the government stepped up enforcement, she said, colleges were much more likely to face a lawsuit from an accused perpetrator who faced discipline than from an unsatisfied victim. Finding in an alleged victim’s favor would also invite bad publicity.
“So what [heightened enforcement of] Title IX has come in and done is created at least an equal and opposing threat of litigation” from victims, Buzuvis said.
Dana Bolger, who graduated from Amherst College in January, says she was raped and stalked by a fellow student in 2011, during her sophomore year. She says a dean advised her to take time off and wait for her rapist to graduate. While she found that advice “shady,” she didn’t know her legal rights at the time and ended up taking a semester off.
But then she found a lawyer, Bruno, who helped her file a formal complaint with Amherst. She said that she can’t discuss the details of the case, but that she ultimately returned to campus feeling safe.
Her activism grew from a desire to share her story to feel less alone. She found more and more sexual assault survivors who had similar experiences, some, she said, who were also victimized by her rapist. She was one of several students whose protests put Amherst into the national news in fall 2012, prompting an anguished promise from the president to change the campus climate.
The Amherst students were able to learn from a student at Yale, who had already been part of a similar campaign. Then counterparts from the University of North Carolina contacted Bolger on Twitter, and she gave them advice over Skype.
The connections grew from there, Bolger said, and ultimately she and a group of others decided to launch Know Your IX. After raising $11,000 on a crowd-funding website, they debuted a sophisticated website full of guidance on topics including Title IX rights, how to start a campaign on one’s own campus, how to transfer schools, and how to deal with skepticism that a man can be an assault victim.
They also organized a protest last summer outside the US Department of Education, which drew attention from the White House.
To Bolger, one factor that has helped activists make such deep inroads is their focus on using the Title IX law to demand their rights. Another has been the willingness of so many sexual assault victims to share their stories, something that seems to have become less taboo in recent years. And social media has made it easier to spread those stories and inspire others to share their own.
“Many people in this country are fortunate enough to believe they don’t know anyone who was ever raped, and the truth is they actually do know many people; they just aren’t aware of it,” Bolger said. “It’s incredibly powerful to have a face and a name attached to a story and to give some meaning to these statistics we all hear about.”
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@