How Campus Sex Assault Changed This Year

There have been a number of major breaks in improving the reporting and penalizing of sexual assault at American universities in 2014, but all the progress made by education and anti-rape activists seemed to come undone in the year's final weeks. In the wake of the Rolling Stone-University of Virginia debacle, it would be an understatement to say that on-campus sexual assault is ending 2014 on a rather depressing note. But should one misreported story overshadow the year's highlights?

Since President Obama and Vice President Biden created the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January, American colleges and universities have come under both federal and public pressure to get serious about rape and sexual assault among their students. There's still hurdles in the way, of course: A new report from the Justice Department released in December found only about 20 percent of on-campus sexual assault victims take their cases to the police. Education and anti-rape activists also continually criticize college administrations for silencing victims through faulty "misconduct hearings."

And the conversation doesn't stop at the edge of the campus gates: Researchers Callie Marie Rennison and Lynn A. Addington recently published a report that found women who aren't in college are subjected to sexual violence at a 30-percent higher rate than women who are attending a four-year university.

There may be a lot on the agenda for 2015, but the foundation was certainly set this year. Here's a look back on the biggest on-campus sexual assault initiatives in 2014...

1. Federal Title IX Investigation

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In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Education announced an unprecedented civil rights investigation of more than 50 colleges and universities that allegedly mishandled sexual violence and harassment complaints, violating Title IX. For the first time in history, the Education Department publicly released the comprehensive list of schools that were under review. Among the schools listed were the prestigious Ivy League institutions of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Princeton University, Yale University and Columbia University.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said at the time:

We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights. We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear that a college or university's appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.
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By October, 85 American colleges and universities were under federal investigation. Some of the new higher education institutions added to the investigation were Marlboro College in Vermont, California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

After the initial list was released, many of the embattled universities began reforming their sexual assault policies in order to better serve the victims. For example, Dartmouth College, which was also under investigation for allegedly violating the rules of the Clery Act, revised its policy to include mandatory expulsion for perpetrators who are found guilty of sexual assault. Meanwhile, Princeton finally lowered its burden of proof in sexual assault cases, from "clear and persuasive" to "preponderance" — becoming the last Ivy League school to do so. The university also decided to replace its student-faculty disciplinary committees with independent investigators who have professional experience with sexual assault cases.

2. It's On Us

In September, the White House announced its "It's On Us" campaign, which serves as an educational resource for young men and women across the United States. The celebrity-driven campaign helps students better identify what constitutes as sexual assault and rape, and allows young people to take the "pledge" to not be a silent bystander and, most importantly, "never blame the victim."

Obama said in September:

An estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years -- one in five. Of those assaults, only 12 percent are reported, and of those reported assaults, only a fraction of the offenders are punished. ... It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what’s unacceptable.

3. Yes Means Yes

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The California state legislature approved an unprecedented "affirmative consent" bill in late August that will force college and universities receiving state aid to revise their sexual assault policies. The law requires all students must have "an affirmative, unambiguous and conscious" consent from both parties before engaging in sexual activity. Schools are now also required to provide medical care, counseling and legal assistance to victims of sexual violence, as well as establish a clear prevention and response protocol.Critics of the law believe it goes to far, it's intrusive, and it gives too much power to victims, or "accusers." However, supporters of the law, which is the first of its kind in the United States, say it will help redefine the collective perception of rape and sexual assault, and facilitate a broader dialogue on what constitutes as sexual assault. As the law itself states, "lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent."

4. Carry The Weight

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At the start of the fall 2014 semester, Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz began lugging her hefty navy-blue mattress around the picturesque Morningside Heights campus. A visual arts major, Sulkowicz devised Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight as a senior thesis-turned-political protest; the performance won't end, Sulkowicz said, until her alleged rapist is expelled from campus.

Because of Columbia's prestige — New York City location — Sulkowicz's visual protest quickly garnered national attention, landing her in The New York Times and on the cover of New York magazine. Young women at more than 100 universities across the country soon organized a Carry That Weight day of action in October. That same day, Columbia students delivered 28 mattresses to the home of university President Lee Bollinger.

To top it all off, after Bollinger fined the students nearly $500 for gifting him those mattress, the students paid him back with a "mattress check" in December.

Images: Getty Images, Carry That Weight/Facebook