Image via Dartmouth College/Eli Burakian

The U.S. Department of Education did not hold back at a summit on campus sexual assault hosted at Dartmouth College Monday. In front of representatives from more than 60 colleges and universities, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education Catharine Lhamon warned that she would have no reservations about pulling a school’s federal funding if it were caught for botching sexual violence cases. Academic institutions are required under the gender equity law Title IX to address incidents of sexual assault and harassment on campus and the ultimate punishment for not complying is complete loss of federal funding, though no college or university has faced such discipline thus far.

“Do not think it’s an empty threat,” Lhamon said on Monday. “It’s one I’ve made four times in the 10 months I’ve been in office. So it’s one that’s very much in use.”

Lhamon and her colleague, Anurima Bhargava from the Department of Justice’s division of civil rights, fielded questions from the audience about how best to address campus sexual assaults directly. Many of the questions submitted had to do with academic administrators’ confusion over how to properly abide by Title IX and the Clery Act. For example, a few asked what role colleges and universities “are required to have in adjudicating sexual assault cases, with some attendees saying they didn’t believe campus judicial systems were ever designed to address misconduct as serious as sexual assault,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

“I resist pretty hard the idea that schools don’t have a role in this,” Lhamon said in response. “They absolutely do. They did when I was in college, and they will when my kids are in college. This is fundamental to the role of education. But it is necessarily different from what is the criminal justice role.”

There were other higher education officials who were more concerned with student privacy, but Lhamon was quick to say that as long colleges and universities make it clear to students which individuals they can expect confidentiality from and who is obligated by law to report the crime, there shouldn’t be an issue.

“If the victim told the Title IX coordinator, then the victim doesn’t have a choice,” she said.

Another topic of interest that sparked some debate was the “toxic environment” often cultivated on school grounds.

“Sexual assault on college campuses is a public health problem that affects all of us,” explained media critic and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne. “We need to pay attention to the environment. Just as it’s difficult to be healthy physically in a toxic environment, it’s the same with sexual assault in an environment that is culturally toxic.”

Gail Stern, who’s responsible for creating programs and curriculums about sexual violence, added that institutions must make it clear to students that rape jokes should never be shared on a college campus, let alone anywhere else. She used the example of St. Mary’s University where students shouted a pro-rape chant during the college’s annual “Frosh Week.” While a five-year tradition, it’s those types of messages that can have a damaging impact on students and campus culture.