Student Life

Schools, Sexual Assault & Silence

It’s important to note that the occurrences, as well as victims, of sexual assault spans all social, economic and, even, gender barriers.

Elizabeth Hoyt

May 23, 2013

Schools, Sexual Assault & Silence

What’s wrong with this picture?

Universities likely see the situation as a double-edged sword. They are unable to correct the issues without knowing the scope of the issue, however, want their campus to remain safe within the public eye in order to attract more students. For colleges, it often comes down to business decisions versus justice for the victims. Unfortunately, more often than not, good business takes the front seat. No school wants to have a reputation as the campus rampant with sex crimes or other safety issues - but that doesn't make the crimes disappear. The situation then becomes a frustrating search for justice, both by victims and advocates. One issue that experts believe may be directly related to the high rate of incidents on campus is a school’s denial about the severity of the problems on campus. Universities are able to maintain this denial because they often fail to compile sexual assaults reported to different entities like police, campus health centers, faculty members, hospitals and other forms of counsel. Yale, for example, was just fined $165,000 by the U.S. Department of Education for under-reporting the frequency of sexual assaults. The Clery Act, a federal law that requires schools to report sexual assault statistics, should aid the awareness. However, in actuality, there is a wide margin between the data reported by universities and the reality seen by campus resource facilities, like counseling and health centers. This discrepancy is attributed to victim’s desire to seek counseling, but not officially report sexual assault crimes. Cross communication amongst the various entities would likely provide more accurate reporting on the frequency of sexual assault, as well as provide officials with information that may lead to discovering serial predators. Many professionals are not required to report such incidents, especially if the victim is unwilling to comply. Those that are required to report incidents through Title IX, may feel conflicted, especially since they were a trusted confidant of the sexual assault victim. Title IX “guarantees students’ civil right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment,” wrote the Huffington Post. Experts suggest that this can be prevented by a professional if they inform the victims early on in the conversation that he or she is required to report any sexual assault complaints. Such professionals, however, disagree due to the fact that it may cause victims to not seek counseling for fear of dealing with an official report. Others warn victimized students not to provide specific details if they don’t want an investigation to be launched. Universities have also been criticized for the lack of education provided to students so that they are able to recognize and report non-consensual sexual situations, such as date-rape. The incorrect handling of such delicate situations, such as inappropriate or accusatory questions of victims or victims being forced to go through mediation with the alleged perpetrator happens all the time. Further issues ensue when cases of sexual assault are handled by campus judiciary committees - not state or local authorities - or other unqualified bodies. It’s all too common that such procedures allow the accused receive either a “slap on the wrist” or no discipline whatsoever. The victims are then left with emotional, physical and financial burdens and a lack of confidence in a system that they originally were brave enough to trust.

Are all universities like that?

Not all campuses are handling cases of sexual assault poorly. Take Oregon State University, for example. The school is known for intense investigation of sexual assaults, empowering sexual assault victims and protecting them from further trauma. Student conduct officers collaborate with Oregon State Police (and sometimes local police) to investigate sexual assaults that take place. The university models their investigation policies on law enforcement approaches. Rather than victims being forced to enter hearings or proceedings, plead their case or make their case against the assailant in front of a student board, they are matched with trauma counselors and given medical care before formal complaints are given to OSU’s student conduct division. Before they are required to make a choice whether or not to report sexual assault, victims are provided with information on campus disciplinary systems and legal options so that they are able to make an informed decision. OSU wasn’t always so proactive, according to a report by Investigate West. The paradigm shifted after the daughter of Henry Lorenzen, then-president of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, accused a fellow student of sexual assault at the University of California at Berkeley. After seeing his daughter endure the “lackluster investigation, the lack of sympathy, the lack of resources, and the disbelief with which Berkeley officials greeted his daughter when she brought her allegation of being raped,” Lorenzen sought out to change the flawed processes his daughter was forced to undergo. A lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, Lorenzen knew he was well aware of “the difference between a quality process and a legal defense.” Shortly thereafter, Oregon adopted new university policies on sexual assault. It’s disheartening when it takes a personal encounter of a traumatic crime for change to take place but, unfortunately, that it’s often the way situations pan out. The changes, however, make a world of difference to future and potential victims for years to come.

How can universities raise awareness?

According to a study by Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), “the only organization that fights sexual violence and rape culture by empowering student-led campaigns,” awareness-raising events, university safety initiatives and social norm/social marketing approaches were found to be the most effective ways of combating sexual assault and violence on campuses.

There is hope.

As a result of the findings of the The Center for Public Integrity investigation, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (known as Campus SaVE) was incorporated into the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Campus SaVE was drafted specifically to address issues identified by the investigation. The legislation includes increasing the required campus education programs on prevention awareness and bystander intervention strategies and makes improvements to protection measures for victims through guaranteed counseling, legal assistance and health/medical services. It also enforces national standards for schools to follow when responding to allegations of sexual assault and sexual violence. According to the Huffington Post, Campus SaVE is “the most significant legislation to address college rape in 20 years.” Campus SaVE officially becomes law one year after being signed by the president, so changes will likely be noticed as early as the 2014-15 school year, when annual campus–crime reports are released to the public. "Campus SaVE calls for transparency and accountability and offers campus victims the critical support they deserve," said Abigail Boyer, communications director for the Clery Center for Security on Campus, in a statement. "Furthermore, it recognizes the need for effective education to work to prevent these crimes from happening and create a campus culture that is conducive to reporting," said Boyer. Additionally, sexual assault survivor activists have recently launched a "Know Your IX", which aims “to educate every college student in the U.S. about his or her rights under Title IX.,” as reported by the Huffington Post.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, please seek help. Contact authorities or seek counseling. Learn more about help and resources near you here.

Do you have any suggestions for universities to help stop sexual assault?

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