Several dozen students and recent graduates—in T-shirts bearing their colleges' names—rallied in front of the U.S. Department of Education on Monday to demand tighter enforcement of federal antidiscrimination law, with stricter sanctions when institutions fail to support victims of sexual assault.
"The Department of Education needs to be more punitive and hold schools accountable," said Andrea L. Pino, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill whose federal complaint in January helped to galvanize students around the country.
The activists here on Monday, many of whom identified themselves as survivors of rape, have formed a movement that is quickly gaining momentum. As the department has signaled greater interest in colleges' compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds, many students and alumni have filed federal complaints.
The complaints, each based on individual experiences, describe colleges' failure to protect students who report sexual assault. Since January, beyond North Carolina, complaints have come from Dartmouth, Occidental, and Swarthmore Colleges, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.
Here on Monday, as part of a campaign called Know Your IX, current and former students delivered a petition to Martha J. Kanter, under secretary of education, urging immediate action. The organizers then met with officials at the Education Department and, later, the White House.
Connecting over social media for the past six months, activists have helped one another prepare complaints and set an agenda for further action. The petition, which has collected more than 100,000 signatures online, calls for harsher judgments than the "voluntary resolution agreements" the department typically reaches with colleges it has investigated under Title IX.
"This strategy of all carrot and no stick may be well-meaning," the petition says, "but it is ineffective, allowing universities to avoid their legal responsibilities at the cost of student safety and academic opportunity."
Call for Fines
In meeting with department officials, organizers detailed the petition's demands and other policy recommendations.
While violations of Title IX can, in theory, prompt the department to revoke an institution's eligibility for federal funds, such a penalty is as impractical as it is unlikely, the activists said. Instead, they called on the department to levy fines on colleges found out of compliance.
The department should also complete investigations promptly and involve complainants in their resolution, the organizers argued. And efforts at enforcement should be broader, they said, with the department's regional offices conducting random compliance reviews and the Department of Justice both monitoring colleges' adherence to settlements and running audits of institutions with repeated complaints.
In recent years, the Education Department has stepped up its enforcement of Title IX, releasing strongly worded guidance in 2011 on handling reports of sexual assault and reminding colleges this spring of the prohibition on retaliation against anybody who reports unlawful discrimination.
A spokesman for the department alluded to that "major policy guidance" in a written statement on Monday. "While proud of our accomplishments to help prevent and address sexual violence, our conviction is that there is always more that can and should be done," he said. "We remain open to feedback."
Chants and Hashtags
Here in front of the Education Department, demonstrators affixed signs to several stairway railings. "Support survivors. Enforce your law," one read. "Your silence will not protect us," said another. Each bore the campaign's Twitter hashtag: #edactnow.
Organizers had borrowed space from the American Association of University Women to make signs. Many young women—and a few young men—were excited to meet in person for the first time.
"To think that this has become something so large so quickly is incredibly inspiring," Ms. Pino said. "It really gives us the energy to continue forward and to continue demanding action."
In a shaded plaza outside the Education Department, several demonstrators shared brief statements through a megaphone. Each stood beside a stack of three boxes of petitions labeled with red signs: "112,000 demand protection against rape on campus."
"Until the department is willing to enforce these laws, we're left with little more than empty promises," said Alexandra Brodsky, a law student at Yale University who, as an undergraduate there, filed a federal complaint in 2011. "This pattern of letting schools off the hook is all too common," she said.
Demonstrators, some with faces painted—"Duke" and "Cal"—snapped their fingers in agreement with speakers. "Whose campus?" they chanted. "Our campus! Whose rights? Our rights!"
Six months ago Tucker Reed, a senior at Southern California, hadn't heard of Title IX, she said. In May she helped file a complaint against her university. A student at Occidental had given her a template, she said, and answered questions until 3 a.m. the day she finished filling it out.
On a private Facebook group with about 600 members, requests for and offers of help are common, said Ms. Reed. "People get on there every day going, 'How do I file?'"
Ms. Reed has now guided students on three other campuses, she said. "It's just about how do we make it as easy as possible." To help push for action from the Education Department, she took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles over the weekend and planned to leave on Monday afternoon.
If students are filing complaints, federal officials have to take them seriously, she said. "Asking a school just to straighten up and fly right isn't really a solution."
Recent investigations by the Education Department have resulted in settlements with "robust, far-reaching remedies," the spokesman said in the agency's statement.
An investigation of Yale in 2011 represented to many observers the department's toughening enforcement of Title IX, marked by the prescriptive guidance issued that year. But the ensuing agreement reached with Yale did not find the university out of compliance and praised its new policies to improve campus safety, a resolution that struck some observers as lenient.
A settlement reached in May between the Education and Justice Departments and the University of Montana at Missoula set forth many specific requirements on a strict timetable. Among other measures, the university must hire an "equity consultant," provide Title IX training to all faculty and staff members, and conduct annual climate surveys to assess students' comfort with the grievance process.
Of the 91 Title IX investigations the Education Department is now pursuing, 23 involve sexual misconduct, including sexual assault.
At the rally here, participants were hopeful that the two agencies would continue working together toward stronger enforcement. Fines may be authorized, organizers said, through the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which passed with the Violence Against Women Act that President Obama signed into law in March.
The organizers who met with senior department officials emerged satisfied. "They definitely heard us," said Laura L. Dunn, a law student at the University of Maryland. The two sides planned to meet again in a few weeks, she said.
Meanwhile, said Ms. Dunn, organizers hoped to make the case to White House officials for an executive order incorporating some of their demands. That, she said, could really hasten greater enforcement.