UM Carey Law alumnae Laura Dunn '14 and Cheri Smith '14 stood near Vice President Joe Biden at the White House press conference as he announced the release of the first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault as well as “a series of actions to help address the problem and make sure victims know they are not alone.” Issued April 29, the report recommends numerous steps that colleges should take to curb the violence that afflicts one in five college women.
Dunn is the founder and executive director, and Smith the operations director of SurvJustice, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing “the prevalence of sexual violence by assisting survivors, empowering activists, and supporting institutions.” The organization, founded in 2012, is listed as a national resource on a new federal website, NotAlone.gov, which was launched with the White House report.
Dunn is delighted to see SurvJustice on the new federal site, calling it “her biggest accomplishment” during law school. “It was both a surprise and an honor to be listed as a national resource,” she says. “This will allow SurvJustice to become the leading organization assisting campus survivors and activists in eradicating sexual violence. I look forward to passing the bar so we can start focusing on impact litigation as an additional tool to ensuring justice for survivors.”
Dunn served as an advisor to the White House Task Force this semester and had previously lobbied Congress to pass the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act in 2013. The White House recommendations represented another partial victory in her fight against indifference to sexual assault on college campuses, an indifference she experienced firsthand after she was assaulted as a college freshman at the University of Wisconsin.
Although encouraged by the work of the White House, Dunn notes that the report fails to recommend consequences for schools that violate Title IX’s sexual violence prevention and response requirements; instead, it limits the time period during which offending schools can negotiate voluntary resolution agreements with the Department of Education. Dunn would prefer to see these voluntary agreements replaced with real punishments. Under the current approach, she says, “[t]here’s still only a carrot without the stick, and schools know that.”
She has a similar objection to the report’s focus on rehabilitating perpetrators of sexual assault, saying that while she is not opposed to such measures, they do not do enough, in and of themselves, to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions. “It’s a very odd choice, to focus exclusively on rehabilitation, to the exclusion of sanctions,” she says.
Still, Dunn recognizes that some progress has been made. She hails the report’s suggestion that schools be required to undertake “climate surveys” to accurately “gauge the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, and test students’ attitudes and awareness about the issue.” These surveys, which she recommended to the task force, will help “to close the gap” between the actual number of campus sexual assaults and the numbers that schools report. Dunn plans to work closely on the follow-up legislation that, in 2016, will make climate surveys mandatory, and lobbied for a similar bill in Maryland this past semester.
A recent graduate, Dunn looks back fondly on her time at UM Carey Law. “I appreciate the school continuing to support my activism by bringing attention to the efforts I have undertaken while a student,” she says, “and for training me [for] a long future career as a victim’s rights attorney.”