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Crisis Response: What Are America’s Colleges Doing To Address Sexual Assault… And Is It Working?

Rape is rape

Sexual assault prevention programs have become ubiquitous on college campuses. While many of these programs were developed in response to mandates for schools receiving federal funding, more recently a series of high-profile lawsuits against prestigious colleges spurred renewed interest in developing better ways for colleges to combat sexual assault.

Regardless of the motivation, such programs are a necessary and appropriate response to the disquieting statistics on sexual assault among college students. In a seminal study on campus sexual assault in 1985, researcher Dr. Mary Koss and colleagues conducted a nationwide survey administered on 32 college campuses across the country. The study found that 54% of college women self-reported that they had experienced some form of sexual victimization, including forcible rape and attempted rape, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual contact. In the same study, Koss and colleagues found that 25% of college men self-reported that they had engaged in sexually aggressive behavior; 3% of college men had committed rape. Koss et al.’s (1987) data are complemented by more recent investigations that document similar rates of sexual victimization among women and sexual aggression among men. These prevalence figures are further supported by prospective studies indicating that 18% to 27% of college women were sexually victimized during 3- to 4-month follow-up periods.

Clearly, sexual assault on college campuses is a problem of sufficient magnitude to warrant intervention. Victims of campus sexual assault face potential traumatization—intense fear and emotional numbing, loss of control, and the shattering of their trust and their belief in their ability to make sound judgments about the people and the world around them. The cost of this potential loss is inestimable. During the last fifteen years, the issue of sexual victimization of students has attracted much needed attention partially through highly publicized campus sexual assault trials and allegations of reports being mishandled by school officials. In response to public pressure, Federal legislation has mandated that institutions of higher education grapple with—and respond to—the staggering rates of sexual victimization on college campuses.

Despite the emergence of concern about sexual victimization among postsecondary students, little systematic information has been published about the content of sexual assault policies, protocols, and programs that currently exist within university settings, nor about the effectiveness of such initiatives.

The Historical Context

Jeanne Clery, namesake of the 'Clery Act,' who was tragically raped and murdered as a college student.

Jeanne Clery, namesake of the ‘Clery Act,’ who was tragically raped and murdered as a college student.

In April 1986, Jeanne Clery, then a freshman at Lehigh University, was brutally raped, mutilated and murdered by a fellow student on campus. The tragedy inspired a 1988 law requiring colleges and universities in Pennsylvania to record crimes on campus and report them to students. At the time the legislation was passed, less than 4 percent of American colleges publicly reported campus crimes, according to the North Carolina Sexual Assault Prevention Team. After calls for national action, Congress passed the Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act in 1990 to require all Title IV eligible universities to publicly disclose crime statistics and crime prevention and security policies and procedures on campus. The Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, which was added in 1992, required colleges and universities to implement prevention policies and guarantee victims certain basic rights. The law was again revised in 1998 to expand reporting requirements and rename the law in remembrance of Jeanne Clery. Now, the Clery Act requires all campus police departments to keep a daily crime log and publish annual crime reports online. The 1998 amendment also prohibits colleges and universities from using the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as justification for their refusal to release the decisions of certain judicial hearings on campus, including sexual assault cases.

The federal government reinforced the need to prevent and prosecute sexual assault cases in all educational institutions in 2011 with its “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter, issued through the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, clarified Title IX requirements regarding sexual violence and urged all institutions to uphold the requirements to the best of their abilities. “A single instance of rape is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment,” the letter read.

Despite efforts to strengthen reporting requirements, bolster prevention programs and draft clearer consent policies, it remains difficult to document the scope of sexual violence on college campuses. Rape and sexual assault are highly underreported crimes. A four-year study by the U.S. Department of Justice conducted between 2006 and 2010 found 65 percent of rape and sexual assault victims did not report the incident to the police.

When a student chooses to report an incident to the campus or local police, the crime must be documented in the college or university’s annual crime report. But that number may not necessarily represent the true number of sex offenses that occurred on campus during any given year. Many students who choose to report their attacks seek confidential resources, and at many universities, the number of sex offenses recorded in an annual crime report does not include the number of reports made to violence prevention coordinators, counselors or chaplains.

While it’s not entirely clear how much things have changed since legislation like the Clery Act was put into place, what is clear is that the status quo is unacceptable. Too many sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported, and even those that are reported to school administrators don’t always make it into the official administrative data.

As I mentioned the other day, I am involved in an ongoing project focused on colleges’ responses to sexual assault. Currently, we are working to determine what colleges are doing right now, and how effective those programs, procedures, and policies actually are. I am also helping to evaluate different sexual assault prevention education programs to develop recommendations for implementation. Starting in the fall of 2016, all colleges receiving federal funding will be required to use one of these programs to provide sexual assault prevention education to all incoming freshman, faculty, staff, and administrators. This is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to address the systematic challenges to preventing sexual assault on college campuses.

For starters, colleges need to develop better ways to handle the reporting of sexual assaults, as well as to protect victims and encourage them to come forward, instead of putting up barriers to reporting. In this article I will briefly review the most problematic trends in reporting sexual assaults on college campuses. These include poorly designed policies, undertrained staff, lack of awareness/understanding, willful noncompliance, and cultural factors like victim-blaming attitudes and minimization.

Systemic Problems

sexual-assault-is-everyones-problemIn 2009, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) conducted an analysis comparing official reports of sexual assault from university reports with the numbers of victims seen by campus and community counseling centers. The 9-month investigation found wide discrepancies between the two measures of sexual assault, including several schools where none of the sexual assault cases referred to counseling centers were recorded in the school’s official report. At West Virginia University, 46 sexual assaults were documented by a campus sexual assault prevention program, but not one of the 46 incidents made it into the university’s annual report. At the University of Iowa, 62 sexual assault victims sought help from the school’s counseling and victim advocacy program, but the official report at the end of the year failed to document a single one of these cases.

According to the CPI report, such discrepancies are commonplace on campuses across the country. A number of problems contribute to underreporting, including a lack of standardization for reporting sexual assaults and mishandling of cases once they are reported. Many colleges have fragmented and disorganized systems for reporting assaults on campus, which can be difficult for victims to navigate. Even university administrators face confusion over reporting procedures and definitions of sexual offenses, which vary greatly between colleges. And despite the explicit protocols for data collection and documentation mandated by the Clery Act, the CPI investigation found evidence of “systematic problems in accurately documenting the total numbers of campus-related sexual assaults.” According to a 2002 Department of Justice analysis, “only 36.5 percent of schools reported crime statistics in a manner that was fully consistent with the Clery Act.”

One such problem is improper data collection, which the CPI says is the most common cause of complaints filed under the Clery Act. While universities are required to survey a wide range of university faculty, staff, and officials when gathering data on sexual assault cases, some colleges only submit reports from law-enforcement officials. Further, misclassification of sexual assaults is common. According to the CPI investigation, “in June 2008, Eastern Michigan University agreed to pay the department [of education] $350,000 — the largest Clery fine ever — for a host of violations, including miscoding rapes” as non-forcible sexual offenses. Even more troubling is that some schools don’t even include certain forms of sexual violence in their reporting procedures. According to the Department of Justice, 97 percent of schools that have a sexual assault policy do not mention stalking in their policies.

What constitutes rape or sexual assault is, in some ways, rather arbitrary. Definitions vary on federal, state and local levels. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation updated its definition of rape to include “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Prior to the revision, the bureau used its 1929 definition — the “carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — to collect data and crime statistics. While that was a major improvement, the new definition isn’t consistent with Clery definitions. Ultimately, many colleges say it’s the student’s right to determine whether his or her experience constitutes rape or sexual assault – which can be extremely problematic, given that misconceptions are so widespread that many victims doubt their own instincts and believe that their situation doesn’t ‘count’ as sexual assault.

Intentional Underreporting

shhh.Not all reporting errors are accidental. The CPI says that almost 50% of the 25 Clery complaint investigations over the past decade determined that schools were “omitting sexual offenses collected by some sources or failing to report them at all.” Rape is generally considered to be one of the most underreported crimes, but on college campuses the problem is even worse. Many universities simply ignore the reports of sexual assaults they do have in an effort to avoid negative publicity. This brings up the question of whether universities should even be involved in arbitrating felonies to begin with. No matter how enlightened a university administration may be, the investigative panels that most often deal with rape cases are made up of university employees who may have an innate interest in muting the claims altogether.

“These universities, they’re big, multibillion-dollar corporations,” Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber told the San Jose Mercury News after the newspaper’s investigation revealed that just one out of 32 reported cases of sexual misconduct at the University of California, Berkeley, was reported to the police. “They don’t want to do anything that rocks the boat, and talking about rape is scary.”

Some schools even go as far as to actively discourage reporting. Last year, Melinda Manning, the former assistant dean of students at the University of North Carolina, resigned from her job over the administration’s poor treatment of rape survivors. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Manning said it was “absolutely heartbreaking” to watch victims of sexual assault being asked inappropriate questions about their experiences, and sometimes even being blamed for their own rape, as they attempted to seek help from the university’s judicial system. And according to a complaint Manning filed with the U.S. Department of Education, the problems go all the way up to the highest levels of the university’s administration, who pressured her to suppress the actual levels of sexual assault on campus. The UNC student paper, the Daily Tar Heel, obtained a copy of Manning’s complaint. According to their report:

The complaint alleges Manning was told by the University Counsel’s office that the number of sexual assault cases she compiled for 2010 was “too high” before the total was decreased by three cases without her knowledge; that she was made the victim of a hostile work environment in the dean of students office; and that her efforts to reform the University’s handling of sexual assault cases were stymied more than once by higher administrators. […]

“(Manning) was told by a member of University Counsel staff that the ‘number of reports was too high’ and she was asked to ‘look over the numbers again,’” the complaint states. “For two weeks, she received multiple phone calls from various members of University Counsel staffasking her to ‘make sure that her numbers were correct.’

The number of sexual assaults that appeared in that year’s Clery report was three lower than the number Manning submitted to the Office of University Counsel, the document states.

The University reported six incidents of forcible sex offenses on campus for 2009, 19 for 2010, the year for which Manning was asked to compile statistics, and 12 for 2011.

Manning’s complaints were primarily directed at Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp and the Office of University Counsel. According to the Daily Tarheel, when Sauls was hired as judicial programs officer in 2006, he removed all language requiring sexual assault training for judicial boards. Manning also says that Sauls repeatedly reprimanded her for reaching out to the Chancellor and the Office of Civil Rights to voice concerns about UNC’s handling of sexual assault. The complaint states that “[Manning] was told by Dean Sauls that she should ‘never contact the Office for Civil Rights again,’” and that Sauls told Manning she would suffer consequences for reaching out to the Chancellor.

Manning’s complaint was filed on behalf of over 60 UNC students who are survivors of sexual assault, suggesting the actual rate of sexual crime on campus is nowhere near the rates that get reported. Under the Clery Act, colleges are required to report campus crime statistics to the U.S. Department of Education — regardless of whether the allegations are reported to police or adjudicated in court — or risk penalties of up to $35,000 for each violation.

Currently, almost three dozen U.S. universities are currently under investigation by the federal government for underreporting sexual assault and possible violating students’ civil rights. This past October, Occidental College and the University of Southern California disclosed that in 2010 and 2011 they underreported the number of sexual assaults on their campuses, a potential violation of the Clery Act. Occidental College, where President Obama studied as an undergrad, is also facing investigation for possible violations of Title IX, a federal antidiscrimination law that requires colleges to impartially investigate sexual assaults. Occidental has since designated a smaller geographic area in which sexual assaults are reported, saying that the original area was “too large.” But the intent of the Clery Act is to facilitate more accurate and transparent reporting of sexual assaults involving college students, not just those that take place on campus. As mentioned previously, the majority of sexual assaults among college students don’t happen on campus, so restricting the geographical area for reporting is nothing more than turning a blind eye to the problem.

According to CPI’s report, overall the biggest limitations of the Clery Act, and subsequent campus reporting, is that the statistics only reflect “official” reports, meaning that unless a victim reports an incident to a campus security authority, the case will not be documented in university records. Because of the disappointing response from authorities, many victims of sexual assault in college say that it isn’t worth the trouble to pursue charges. The pervasive underreporting of sexual assault just furthers the shroud of secrecy surrounding sexual assault, allowing university officials to continue denying the crisis on campus.

Beyond reporting policies, many colleges do not adequately prepare employees or other students to respond to reports of sexual assault. The Department of Justice found that over 60% of schools provide no sexual assault response training to students. This is particularly important given that about two-thirds of victims disclose their experience to a friend, whereas only 2-3% report the crime to police or campus authorities. Research shows that active support of friends is the primary factor that distinguishes those victims who report the crime to campus and/or local authorities and those that remain silent, indicating that friends will play a role in addressing the problem of underreported sexual assault.

But an even bigger question is whether or not colleges should even be conducting their own investigations, rather than turning to outside experts. Even with the best intentions, colleges just aren’t equipped to do these kinds of allegations justice. You wouldn’t expect a campus panel investigation into a school-related murder; homicide detectives would be brought in immediately. And yet, at many universities, the panel that investigates sexual assault claims is nothing more than a student affairs judiciary committee, whose primary purpose is to resolve academic issues such as plagiarism and cheating on tests. In terms of training in forensic interviews, evidence collection, suspect interrogation and the legal code on sex crimes, these committees are indubitably unprepared.

The Student Side

Quote-on-RapeIn addition to problems with university policies, the culture surrounding sexuality and sexual assault on many college campuses contributes to the underreporting of rape. Victim-blaming attitudes, misperceptions about consent, and a general lack of understanding of how to respond to sexual assaults are common on our nation’s campuses.

Challenging popular belief in stranger-rape myths, the vast majority of sexual assaults against students are perpetrated by young men known to the victim. A study conducted in 2000 by the National Institute of Justice found nearly 90 percent of college women who had experienced attempted or completed rape on campus knew the perpetrator prior to the incident, an act commonly referred to as acquaintance rape or non-stranger sexual assault. The same study found nearly half of the victims surveyed did not define their attacks in that manner, rendering the problem difficult to fully address. Because of the pervasive myth that most rapists are strangers, victims may believe that ‘acquaintance rape’ is not as serious or does not fit under the legal definition of rape. Underreporting by victims of acquaintance sexual assault is among the most significant factors contributing to underreporting on college campuses.

A substantial majority of these victims, however, do not define their experiences using legal terms. That is, even though the incident is legally a criminal offense, they do not call their victimization a “rape.” This is particularly true when weapons are absent, alcohol is present, and/or physical injury (e.g., choke marks, bruises) is not apparent—the characteristics that are most often found in acquaintance rapes. Victims not identifying and naming events that meet legal definitions of rape and sexual assault has serious implications for reporting campus sexual assault since one must conceptualize an event a crime before she, or he, attempts to seek justice, or heal.

Students who are sexually assaulted while intoxicated may also be less likely to report the incident for fear of facing disciplinary action. Most colleges have alcohol policies that threaten to penalize students for underage drinking, and though many administrators say they would not punish a crime victim who reported using alcohol at the time of the assault, very few university policies make this explicit.


blamethesystemFurther, students who work up the courage to report their attacks are often barraged with condescending questions and regarded with skeptical attitudes, for proof is a heavy burden when little physical or testimonial evidence exists to support it. Legal or disciplinary charges are often dropped in frustration or distress.

Most people don’t talk about sexual assault unless they or someone close to them experiences it, so a lot of us don’t know how to respond to a friend who discloses their victimization. Several factors influence whether victims choose to report, but one of the biggest reasons is that they don’t think anyone will believes them.

Say your female friend approaches you with what happened the other night. She never consented to sleeping with a guy and thinks she might’ve been assaulted. Naturally, you’ll want to know what she did, if anything provoked it, the specifics. You ask if she drank, if she can remember the details clearly. “Are you sure you were really assaulted?” Yes, she admits, she blacked out. No, she doesn’t remember everything clearly.

Your friend might come to believe it never happened. Or if it did, that it’s okay; that it’s not really a crime. She might believe she’s to blame for her own assault.

And your response may impact how your friend copes — when victims tell friends or a confidant about an incident, they’re often questioned about their own behaviors, which does more harm than good.

This response, while often well intentioned, is called victim blaming. It’s only one of several ways rape culture manifests in society. The same type of rape culture can be seen in everyday conversation. Jokes about rape constitute a classic example. “Did you see the game last night? They totally raped them,” is an all-too-common use of “rape” as slang for “overpower” and “defeat.”

Victim-blaming, often perpetuated by females, is actually a psychological defense mechanism in many instances. The tendency for women to victim-blame can be explained by two psychological concepts: the ‘defensive attribution hypothesis’ and the ‘just world hypothesis.’ Though these two concepts differ in terms of the motive for one’s attributions of blame, they both describe the tendency to ascribe increased blame for the victims of crime (or, more generally, “misfortune”) as the outcome becomes more severe, and as personal or situational similarity to the victim increases. In other words, women may imply that a victim could have done something to stop the attack because it makes them feel safer to believe that the crime was preventable. After all, if a woman says that the rape was not preventable in any way, what’s stopping the same thing from happening to her? It’s something women often do as a protective thing, and it’s usually an unconscious process.

Unfortunately, victim-blaming attitudes affect colleges’ handling of sexual assault cases. In one incident at the University of Southern California (USC), a female student reported sexual misconduct by a male classmate. Both students were enrolled in a very small film-writing program. The panel that investigated the case conducted interviews with a sizable chunk of students also enrolled in the program, several of whom were not even present on the night of the reported assault. Even though these students had no direct evidence to provide, they were interviewed as “character witnesses” by the panel and asked to describe the dynamic between the victim and her assailant. The point of this, the victim would learn, was to see if her claim was rooted in a romantic squabble. The panel also instructed the victim not to talk about the incident with any of her friends in the tight-knit program, effectively shaming her into silence. In an interview with Buzz-Feed contributor Natasha Vargas-Cooper, the victim said that she initially went to campus authorities instead of law enforcement because she felt safer doing that. In the end, the victim’s case was dismissed by USC as a he-said-she-said matter and she is now suing the university for it’s handling of the situation.

Even more tragically is the case of University of Missouri student Sasha Menu Courey. In January, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” released the results of a 16-month investigation into allegations by Courey, who, in 2010 reported to school health officials and possibly at least one university administrator that she had been raped earlier in the year, possibly by one or more members of the USC football team. Citing ‘personal privacy, ‘ the school didn’t act. Over the next few months, Courey descended into a deep depression and, the next year, committed suicide. Though the university says it stands by its actions, USC did finally turn the case over to police investigators two days after the ESPN story broke, claiming it had new names and information in the case. But the timing is awfully coincidental.

Until universities and students improve their responses to sexual assault, victims are facing an uphill battle – and they know it. As long as we as a community continue to make victim-blaming statements, we will continue to see rapes go unreported. The conversation needs to shift to the person who chose to rape.

The Opposition

121933452Not everyone agrees that expanding the scope of sexual assault prevention programs and implementing policies to facilitate reporting is a good idea. Some ‘men’s rights activists’ (not all, but a significant number, given the degree of activism and online commentary stemming from ‘men’s rights’ groups), who I will refer to in this context as ‘rape apologists’ (because, in this context, that is exactly what they are; they are advocating to make it harder for rapists to be brought to justice, so I can’t think of a better way to describe them), argue that expanding protections for victims will lead to over-prosecution and false rape claims. But despite the amount of hysteria over false rape claims, they are actually extremely uncommon. A few months ago, BuzzFeed ran a great article to point out the sheer absurdity of claims that false rape accusations are a widespread problem. Based on data from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, BuzzFeed reported that the odds of the average straight male (which, as they point out, is the group overwhelmingly concerned with this) being wrongly accused of rape are 2.7 million to 1. To put that number in perspective, BuzzFeed did the math and figured out that, compared to the odds of being falsely accused of rape, the average man is 5 times more likely to win $10,000 in the Powerball Lottery; 750 times more likely to die from alcohol poisoning; 11 times more likely to be killed by an asteroid or comet; and 631 times more likely to become an NFL player. And to refocus the conversation on the real issue, BuzzFeed also pointed out that the average man is 82,000 times more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.

Moving Forward

rape-culture-campus-e1369335946938So what should universities do, given the inherent problems in investigating crimes that would be against their own self-interests to report? One sensible solution is to follow the example set by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a champion of reform of sexual-assault cases in the military, who has insisted that the command chain be taken out of the adjudication process rather than becoming even more deeply enmeshed in existing systems. The same conflict of interest that military officers might face when disciplining their colleagues also exists in the vested interest that universities have in dealing with, or ignoring, campus rape.

I’m not suggesting that colleges shouldn’t have any part in the reporting process, but I do think the best way to deal with this problem is to involve more outside experts. Colleges could bring in a detective from the local sex-crimes unit to address incoming students at orientation to explain the legal definitions of consent and sexual battery, and outline law enforcement’s methods of evidence collection, as well as sharing statistics successfully prosecuted campus sexual assaults. Hearing the real legal consequences of sexual assault from a detective or DA would almost certainly make a stronger impression on incoming students than the same information if delivered by a university administrator or dorm counselor.

Colleges should absolutely continue to offer – and expand – counseling and medical services and sexual assault prevention and education programs, and they should certainly keep working to foster a spirit of mutual respect and safety among the student body. But what university officials should not do is supersede criminal investigation. Schools should be free to conduct their own internal investigations if they choose to do so — but only after the criminal justice system has finished its work. Without oversight from outside agencies and the power of the law, current university policies are far too easily misinterpreted, misapplied, and sometimes even abused.

Within the next few weeks, we should hear from President Obama’s task force on sexual assault on college campuses. Their responsibility is to provide a set of recommendations to address the problem. Then it will be up to the colleges to figure out the best strategies to comply with the law and to most effectively help sexual assault victims. But that doesn’t mean colleges won’t be held responsible if they don’t adequately address the problem on their campus — and those of us monitoring their progress will be sure to take note if we see any problems.



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