ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In college sports, Title IX is known mostly as a way to ensure women are given the same opportunity as men to participate in sports. What is less known is that the act also requires colleges to prevent sexual assault and violence at their institutions.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: First, a little history. Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 bars discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program that receives federal funding. It has been expanded and reinterpreted over the years, says Laura Dunn of SurvJustice, a victims rights group.
LAURA DUNN: It was in the '80s that the Supreme Court actually interpreted sex discrimination, which is prohibited under Title IX, as also including sexual harassment. And what we've seen is that sexual assault is just considered the most severe form of sexual harassment.
NAYLOR: More recently, a 2011 letter from the Department of Education to colleges and universities directed schools to take accusations of sexual assault seriously. Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, says the so-called Dear Colleague Letter marked a big change in the way schools behaved.
BRETT SOKOLOW: The 2011 Dear Colleague Letter landed like a bomb in higher education. And it really has created an enormous sea change.
NAYLOR: It outlined schools' responsibilities and obligations to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate complaints of sexual violence. Schools began reshaping their policies and procedures, and Sokolow says students began to trust their schools by coming out and reporting instances of sexual assault.
SOKOLOW: That used to be a very rare occurrence. Now, many campuses experience double the number of reports that they did just a few years ago on an annual basis.
NAYLOR: Still, as evidenced by the 55 schools that are currently under investigation by the Department of Education, many institutions are falling short. Title IX is enforced by the Department's Office for Civil Rights. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon says the Department has a pretty broad scope of remedies if a school is found not to be in compliance with Title IX.
CATHERINE LHAMON: The kinds of things that we would typically require would be the campus conduct climate surveys, to determine what students believe is working well or not working well on their campuses; that they reopen investigations to make sure that they are delivering appropriate relief to people who have come to them; that they involve the community in identifying what more needs to be done.
NAYLOR: If the college or university still falls short there is one big stick to make them comply: The loss of all their federal funding, including student aid. That sanction has never been used by the department and, blunt as it may be, Lhamon says it's a useful tool.
LHAMON: I think it's really important for schools to understand that violation of the law, if they don't correct it, includes withholding federal funds. And something that is less than that would provide us less of an enforcement stick and deliver less for our students who need to have their educational rights restored.
NAYLOR: The school most threatened by that stick right now is Tufts University, near Boston. The school had signed an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, pledging to make changes after complaints it had mishandled sexual assault cases. But last month, the school withdrew from the agreement. In a statement on its website, Tufts acknowledges it could have done more to address past student complaints. But Tufts disputes assertions by the Department of Education that the school is still not complying with Title IX.
Laura Dunn, herself a survivor of a campus sexual assault, says it's still a struggle to get schools to fully comply with the law.
DUNN: We're trying really to give victims some power in the system, so they're not always feeling like they're fighting to get justice.
NAYLOR: And Assistant Secretary Lhamon says her office is working to see that sexual violence is not a right of passage for students and young adults.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.