How Colleges Fail Assault Victims — And How Students Can Help


The latest in a series of disturbing reports on campus assault found that colleges and government agencies alike often botch rape investigations. One solution may be to keep rape from happening in the first place.

Today’s report by Kristin Jones of the Center for Public Integrity, the same organization that found in December that over 95% of college rape victims never report their assault, tells the story of University of Wisconsin rape victim Laura Dunn and her failed attempts to get justice first from her school, and then from the U.S. Department of Education. Dunn was raped by two teammates (she rowed crew) in April 2004. In July 2005, she became one of the 5% of victims who do report their rapes. Her university then took nine months to investigate — including waiting two full months before interviewing one of the suspects — and then filed no charges. Dunn then took her case to the Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is empowered to enforce students’ right to fair treatment in sexual assault cases as part of Title IX. Dunn said, “I really expected for an organization that puts civil rights in their name to understand” — but even though Wisconsin’s delay had given one of Dunn’s attackers time to intimidate her at a party, the OCR found “insufficient evidence” of any wrongdoing. “It was pretty devastating,” Dunn says.

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Out of 24 investigations between 1998 and 2008, the OCR found violations of Title IX in just five. And of those five, none of the schools were actually punished. Jones writes that critics feel “OCR’s enforcement of how schools handle Title IX cases involving alleged sexual assaults is overly friendly, which ultimately lets colleges – and rapists – off the hook.” Practically, this can mean colleges give rapists meager punishments — as U. Mass. Amherst did when it failed to expel a student who admitted to rape — forcing victims to run into their attackers regularly on campus. Some, like Indiana University student Margaux J., also profiled by the Center for Public Integrity, feel they have no choice but to drop out — while their rapists go on to graduate. One possible solution would seem to be encouraging victims to report crimes to police rather than school officials — but, writes Kristen Lombardi of the CPI, “Prosecutors often shy away from such cases because they are “he said, she said” disputes absent definitive evidence. ”

NPR’s Joseph Shapiro, who wrote about Dunn and the CPI report yesterday, says “it’s hard to sort out truth in such cases.” And while this seems perilously close to what Feministing calls “spreading the myth of ‘gray rape'” — the idea that consent is an inherently fuzzy issue that can be interpreted in many ways — it’s also true that colleges and law enforcement alike seem unwilling or unable to effectively punish rapists. Russlynn Ali, the Dept. of Education’s assistant secretary for Civil Rights, says she wants to pave the way for OCR to issue harsher punishments, like withdrawing federal funding from schools that fail to properly investigate assaults. But in the meantime, writes Shapiro, some schools are looking for ways to stop rape from happening in the first place.

One way to do this is to educate students about consent, as UCLA is doing. Another is to challenge the kind of campus rape culture that blames victims for drinking or alleges that women file claims out of guilt or spite. After we wrote about a particularly egregious example of victim-blaming at Princeton, examples of this culture came pouring in. One reader sent us an advice column from the Ohio University Post, which read, in part,

I realize that a lot of people hook up when they’re drunk, but it’s important to remember that when alcohol is involved, consent goes out the window. If you’re putting these women under false ideas that you have a sincere interest in them and that’s what they’re looking for, you could end up in quite a bit of trouble.
It’s sad but true: Some girls don’t handle being lied to/taken advantage of very well, and some will even throw out the “R” word (yes, rape) when you don’t hold up your end of the deal. Please understand, not all women behave this way and some women really are victims of rape, but there are other women who will abuse the term. Why take the risk?

Junior Liz Herron admirably fired back:

According to the FBI, false reporting for rape is about 3 percent. That is the same percentage for false reporting for other felonies. Given that one in four women will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and that 60 percent of rapes are not reported, the number of women (or men) who will falsely report rape is very small. It is extremely unlikely that a woman will report rape for being lied to. Perhaps, then, she might report rape not because she doesn’t “handle being lied to very well,” but because she doesn’t handle being raped very well.

Another reader pointed us to the Boston College Observer, which published a (notably anonymous) cartoon in response to The Vagina Monologues, titled “The end of the women’s rights movement at BC.” The cartoon depicts a cross-eyed, hunch-backed woman whose shoe reads “Just say no!” Its message is frankly a little muddled, but the cartoonist seems to imply that saying no to sexual contact is something only weirdos do. Again, though, another student was on the case, responding:

Besides being incredibly offensive, this piece illustrates The Observer’s completely misconstrued understanding of what the Women’s Rights movement is. I’m even confused as to what this is trying to say, that there is fault in loving one’s vagina? What does “Just say no!” refer to; consent?
However, I would like to see how The Observer staff would draw the Feminism it approves of. This cartoon implies that it would be a polite and quiet woman, without an opinion to voice. That hardly seems like a step forward to me.

Unlike the cartoonist, this student was willing to give his name: it’s Michael Wolf. Our hats go off to him — on college campuses, it’s all too easy to buy into the lies that women’s drinking and flirting causes rape, that women frequently report rape in order to ruin men’s lives (all too often, it’s the victim’s life and not the attacker’s that gets ruined), and that rape would never happen if women just behaved themselves. Students need administrators and law enforcement officials to work actively against these lies by punishing rapes to the full extent of the law. But they also need their peers to speak out against a social system that encourages men and women alike to pretend rape doesn’t exist. It’s sad that students have to step up when their universities so often fail them — but judging by Herron and Wolf, they’re up to the challenge.

Lax Enforcement Of Title IX In Campus Sexual Assault Cases [Center For Public Integrity]
Campus Rape Victims: A Struggle For Justice [NPR]
“A Culture of Indifference”: Report On Campus Sexual Assault Reveals Inaction Taken By Schools, Education Department [Feministing]
When Rapists Graduate And Victims Drop Out [Washington City Paper Sexist Blog]
A Lack Of Consequences For Sexual Assault [Center For Public Integrity]
Pillow Talk: Sex Seeker Questions Morality Of Lying To Potential Hook Ups [The Post]
Post Letters: No One Can Consent When Under The Influence [The Post]
The End Of The Women’s Rights Movement At BC [The Observer At Boston College]
School Fails To Expel Admitted Rapist []

Earlier: Sexual Assault On Campus: Schools Don’t Always Offer Much Assistance

“She Knew What Would Happen If She Started Drinking:” Blaming The Victim, Princeton Edition

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