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Round table reveals problems of reporting, prosecuting campus sexual assault

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

It’s no surprise that there are serious problems with reporting and prosecuting campus sexual assaults.

The details of why began to emerge during the third round table convened by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Monday to look at the issue that is complicated by “a system that is multijurisdictional,” as she called it.

McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), talked with campus and municipal police, college administrators, victims’ advocates, rape survivors (the preferred term over victim) and prosecutors to determine what should be included in legislation they propose to introduce with bipartisan support after the August recess.

In campus sexual assault cases, the problems begin with jurisdiction. Whether campus or city police investigate usually depends on where the assault took place. Once it’s reported, the victim might have to be interviewed multiple times, although “in a perfect world,” McCaskill said that first discussion would be conducted by someone specially trained in forensic interviewing techniques.

Prompt reporting was another concern in order to collect not just the physical evidence of a rape, but text messages, for example, and corroboration by witnesses.

There’s also the concern that schools may discourage students from pursuing the case through the courts by emphasizing the negative consequences of seeking criminal charges, without providing information on positive results, said Jennifer Gaffney, deputy chief of the Special Victim’s Bureau in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. Gaffney noted, for example, that a college might order the accused to avoid the survivor but that the order is unenforceable when the survivor moves elsewhere after graduation, as opposed to a legal order issued through the courts.

The choice on whether to proceed in court should be left up to the survivor. “Some people want public vindication through the courts,” said Yale University law student Alexandra Brodsky, an organizer of Know Your IX, which aims to educate U.S. college students in about their rights under Title IX. “Some people just want an extension on their English paper, or to not have to see their rapist in their dorm the following day.” She said she was told by Yale not to pursue criminal charges after an attempted rape her freshman year.

“What’s right for one survivor is not right for another survivor,” pointed out Carrie Hull, a detective at the Ashland (Ore.) Police Department.

“Reporting should be about getting services for victims,” said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, research fellow at the Victim Rights Law Center and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Hull said reporting of rape cases was up 105 percent since a new program in Ashland gives survivors choices. Called “You Have Options,” it allows survivors to report an assault or ask for a partial or complete investigation.

Providing an advocate to survivors has been shown in research studies to improve cooperation, said Jessica Ladd-Webert, director of the Office of Victim Assistance at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Confidentiality is one of the major, if not leading, concerns of survivors. That’s complicated by the requirement of the Clery Act to issue a “timely warning” if students are in danger from a potential rapist.

“We’ve got a problem with timely warnings,” McCaskill said. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Hull worried that timely warnings reinforce the myth that most sexual assaults occur when someone “jumps out the bushes.” People “don’t think it’s rape if they know each other,” McCaskill reiterated.

Yet survivors know the perpetrator in the majority of sexual assault cases, and research shows the majority of campus rapes are committed by serial offenders. What about stopping these repeat perpetrators?

“It’s never the responsibility of victims, it’s the responsibility of the offender” if another attack occurs, Hull said.

Blumenthal asked about the issue of under-reporting, saying that “enforcement gives credibility.” It’s the horror stories of what survivors go through that keep many of them silent. Blementhal said some schools allow the accused to question his accuser during on-campus adjudications.

He also brought up alcohol use as “the elephant in the room,” though several agreed that the problem went beyond drinking and partying.  Statutes vary from state to state on what constitutes rape and consent and the role of alcohol.

The issue of consent, though, is one that students need to understand. Darcie Folsom, director of sexual violence prevention and advocacy at Connecticut College, said she believed that’s where funds should go.

Prevention strategies. Learning that “no means no.” Trained investigators. Less paperwork and fewer regulations to wade through so campus officials can focus on the safety of their students. Options for punishment of offenders outside of the courtroom. Reasonable penalties for schools that fail to comply with the Clery Act and Title IX in providing safe campuses.

Those are all needed, from what people have said during the series of round tables. But we also need a culture change, and it should start much earlier than the first week of college classes. Kathy Zoner, chief of Cornell University Police, described the cultural mindset that contributes to sexual assault:

“Boys will be boys and girls need to be polite.”

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

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