Survey offers insights into how colleges handle sexual assaults: Not well


During a news conference at the University of Southern California on July 22, 2013, rape victim Tucker Reed, 23, left, closes her eyes as she listens to Ari Mostov, 20, tearfully reveal details of her sexual assault. The students are part of the Coalition Against Rape that charges school officials haven’t done enough to investigate claims of sexual abuse on the university campus. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Before my daughter left for college three years ago, we talked about rape.

“Don’t walk alone at night,” I told her.

“Don’t get in a car with anyone you don’t know well.”

“Don’t take a drink from someone at a party or leave your glass unattended.”

At the new parent orientation at my daughter’s college, I was relieved to learn that a campus police officer could escort her back to the dorm if she were out studying (or even partying) late at night.

Like many parents, I believed that most sexual assaults occur when a stranger jumps out from behind the bushes.

Now I know differently, after reporting on this subject since Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former sex crimes prosecutor, turned her attention from sexual assault in the military to sexual assault on the nation’s campus, starting with a series of roundtable discussions through May and June.

Wednesday her office released the results of an unprecedented survey of 440 colleges and universities that examined how sexual assaults are reported, how schools investigate such crimes and what students know about the process and services available.

There’s a lot that needs to change.

Some of the most disturbing findings, to me, involved the adjudication process designed to decide whether an assault had occurred and what to do about it. More than 20 percent of schools allow the athletics department to investigate when an allegation of sexual assault involves a student athletes. McCaskill called that “borderline outrageous.” I would just say “outrageous.”

Winning football games might prove more important than seeking justice for the victim of a sexual assault. (Anyone remember Lizzy Seeberg?)

More than 40 percent of large public universities allow students to help adjudicate. I understand the idea of a jury of one’s peers, but not in this type of case. Will students keep quiet? Who could resist telling a couple of friends about the salacious details? And do students even have the training to make such judgments?

At least those schools are responding to an allegation of sexual assault. More than 40 percent of the institutions answering the survey haven’t investigated any cases of sexual assault in the last five years. That doesn’t mean no crimes have occurred. It just means no one will report them, or administrators are ignoring them.

The numbers are depressing in all areas. More than 20 percent of schools fail to provide any sort of training for faculty and staff on how to respond to sexual assault, most don’t have a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner, a shocking 8 percent don’t allow confidential reporting and many lack coordination between local and campus police.

McCaskill said during a telephone press conference she’s looking at introducing bipartisan legislation in late August or early September, emphasizing repeatedly that she does not want to “over-legislate.”

Some potential requirements I’d suggest, like that of a trained sexual assault nurse examiner, could be “an onerous” expense for a small school, McCaskill said, while other changes wouldn’t cost much. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to sit down with the local prosecutor and chief of police to develop protocols,” she said.

Neither would programs to educate students, along with faculty and staff, about the issue of consent. I liked McCaskill’s description: If you knocked a young woman unconscious by hitting her with a two by four, you wouldn’t dream of assaulting her. Yet a woman passed out from drinking on a couch is seen as an invitation.

“Bystander intervention” programs, along with public service announcements featuring President Obama and celebrities like Daniel Craig, may help teach students how to handle these situations. Those PSAs are part of the effort by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, established in January.

Both the White House task force and McCaskill would like to see more “climate surveys,” allowing students to report anonymously the prevalence of sexual assaults at their school. No one really knows the extent of the problem; the best numbers from the Department of Justice say one in five women will be sexually assaulted, with freshmen and sophomores at the highest risk, yet fewer than 5 percent of rapes on campus are reported.

Victims, or survivors as they’re more often called these days (and it’s no badge of honor, George Will), need to know what to do after an assault. That education process starts early and it doesn’t have to be expensive. My daughter’s college papered the campus with flyers listing the website and hotline number for victims of sexual assault, hazing and bullying this spring.

Students should be able to make confidential reports online, even if they’re not sure they want to pursue a case through the legal system, although many in roundtable discussions believed that punishment was necessary for prevention, especially in cases of repeat offenders.

McCaskill’s frustration with taking these cases to court is evident. I’ve heard her say more than once that if prosecuting a rape case is “impossible” because the victim won’t testify, then there’s no reason to prosecute murders, either.

An act of Congress will help get change started. But so can parents and students.

I know now the kinds of questions to ask at orientation. What kind of training does the school offer students, faculty and staff about sexual assault? What sort of prevention programs are in place? If a student is assaulted, how does she — or he — report it? Is there a nurse on campus who can do a sexual assault exam? Is confidentiality guaranteed? What alternatives are offered to going through the legal system? What support does the school offer if the victim wants to prosecute? Will the victim have to see the alleged perpetrator next semester in accounting class or can schedules be worked out to avoid each other?

If we ask the right questions, the colleges will need to find answers.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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