In the Moment: In fight against sex assaults on campus, awareness must translate to action

In terms of awareness about sexual assaults on campus, we’ve definitely passed a tipping point in the almost four years since I started writing about the issue in 2010, following 19-year-old Lizzy Seeberg’s suicide after she accused a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault.

In 2011, this was still such a dicey, dangerous topic that Time magazine spiked with no explanation what was to have been a cover story on the Seeberg case, just hours before that piece was supposed to go to print, on the direct order of then-editor in chief of Time Inc., John Huey.

This was the day after an emergency conference call of the school’s board of trustees about my story. According to a source who was on the call, one trustee said there might still be one more way to try to get the piece killed. My editor, Mike Duffy, and I had laughed about that earlier that morning when I told him what the source had said; Duffy had also told me that the magazine was going to nominate the story for a National Magazine Award.

(Instead, the piece later ran in the tiny but brave National Catholic Reporter, which was 20 years ahead of the mainstream press in covering the clerical sex abuse scandals. NCR was also rightly praised last year, in Time magazine, as “a global powerhouse headquartered in a red-brick building in urban Kansas City, Missouri.’’)

Well, this week, Time does have a story on campus sexual assault on its cover, headlined “The sexual assault crisis on American campuses.”

It was the Seeberg case that led the civil rights office of the Education Department to launch an investigation, even without a formal complaint, “for the first time in at least 30 years, to respond rapidly to an egregious case,’’ said Russlynn Ali, the Obama administration’s then-assistant secretary for civil rights. After a seven-month probe, Notre Dame reached a negotiated settlement agreement with the feds and agreed to change how it handles complaints.

Sixty schools are under federal investigation now — five more just since May 1, when the Education Department released the names of 55 schools where the handling of assault reports was being investigated.

The White House convened a task force that issued its first report on the subject last month. Vice President Biden, who became a hero in this war when he introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990, has spoken repeatedly about the epidemic. Actors like Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro are doing PSAs aimed at a male audience. “If she doesn’t consent, or if she can’t consent,” Del Toro says in his, “it’s rape. It’s assault.”

The Senate is working in earnest on legislation. The dreaded phrase “he said, she said” hasn’t been retired from the lexicon, but more and more people realize that what that usually means is, “We don’t want to know what happened.”

Most of the change we’ve seen so far, though, is on the awareness front. And a Monday roundtable convened by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made clear just how far we have to go in combatting the problem we finally admit we have.

McCaskill, who in a former life was a pioneering prosecutor of sex crimes, began by asking those around a table in the Dirksen Office Building to tell her “everything that frustrates you, and everything that’s working” in their work combatting assaults on campus.

Mostly, what she heard back was what’s frustrating:

●The public still thinks that a campus that claims to have received no reports of sexual assault must be a safer place than one that admits to having received a slew of them. Though that’s understandable, it’s also a misperception. For decades, surveys have shown that between one in four and one in five women experiences an assault or attempted assault on campus, most often in the first weeks of her freshman year. This happens everywhere — but the campus where no or few victims are reporting is a campus where they don’t feel safe doing that.

●One problem with making the number of assaults reported on campus available is that the numbers reported under the federal Clery Act are just not reliable — which actually punishes those schools whose officials do dare to accurately report. In fact, if you extrapolate from the surveys that suggest 20 to 25 percent of college women are sexually assaulted, “thousands of schools are not compliant” with the reporting requirement, McCaskill said. And the Education Department has only 13 auditors overseeing compliance at 7,000 universities.

●Even now that the federal government has gotten much more aggressive in investigating complaints, the threatened punishments for mishandling reports are absurdly weak: The maximum fine for failure to report under the Clery Act is $35,000 per violation — a pittance for most big schools. And the “nuclear option” of withdrawing federal aid to the university would be so extreme that it’s not a credible threat; that sanction has never been applied.

●Because rape and sexual assault are state rather than federal crimes, there’s no one definition of sexual assault. In 16 states, only cases involving force or the threat of force are considered rape, and sex acts that occur when the victim is too incapacitated to give consent don’t qualify.

●Many cops on many campuses remain “so confused about what the regulations are,’’ said Eric Heath, chief of police at George Mason University Police Department. “I work with a lot of really good people who want to do the right thing, but there’s mass confusion.”

Still, colleges “are making changes now because they’ve been called out, said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center for Security on Campus. “I can name five schools that do it really well, and they’re all under investigation.’’ It was after they were “called out,’’ in other words, that they’ve been more proactively training employees about how to handle reports. They’re teaching students to look out for one another, making sure that victims receive support and are interviewed by officers with the kind of special training that can make the difference between a conviction and a botched investigation.

(After the hearing, Kiss named Penn State and Dartmouth as schools she’d say had gotten serious about change after devastating publicity; Dartmouth’s applications dropped significantly in the last two years, and though it’s impossible to link the drop directly to reports that Dartmouth had mishandled sexual assault reports, local media and school officials did connect those dots.)

McCaskill said that while she’s glad schools are responding to bad PR, she rejects the idea that we can afford to stand by and wait passively for “another heartbreaking suicide” in the hope that schools will then get religion on sexual assault. “If we’re thinking that all they need is a bad story, that’s a lot of victims” who would suffer in the interim.

Instead, what schools have to do to get out in front of another such tragedy is change what McCaskill calls the “check-the-box mentality” — complying on paper, but not in a way that changes a culture in which victims are blamed and a small number of repeat offenders remain free to rape again and again.

To do that, says Lizzy Seeberg’s father, Tom Seeberg, we’d have to move from a “culture of compliance to a culture of commitment.” And it’s about time.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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