Holding Campuses Accountable in Reporting Sexual Assault

Taken from the July/August 2012 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Sadly this is typical for the roughly one in five college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape.1 Rape is a violent crime that, outside the college setting, carries harsh punishments, so why are college perpetrators rarely even expelled? To examine this issue, the Center for Public Integrity interviewed experts familiar with the disciplinary process as well as female students who reported being raped by another student.2 The Center also reviewed records in select cases and examined a decade’s worth of complaints filed with the federal Department of Education (DOE) under laws that require colleges and universities to report assault claims.

The report noted that women who report rapes encounter mystifying disciplinary proceedings, secretive school administrations, and off-the-record negotiations.2 Students reported that administrators discouraged them from pursuing rape complaints, and some women said they were threatened with punishment themselves if they did not keep quiet about the proceedings. The Center found that university-appointed committees typically sentence rapists by making them write essays and attend education programs, expelling them for two weeks, and having them apologize to their victims.2

Just over half of the rape victims the Center interviewed reported that they were unsuccessful in seeking criminal charges and instead had to seek justice in closed, school-run administrative proceedings that led either to academic penalties or no punishment at all for their alleged assailants. This treatment by university administrators left survivors feeling betrayed by a process they say has little transparency or accountability. At times, frustrating school policies lead to dropped complaints and illegal gag orders. Many college administrators believe the existing processes provide a fair and effective way to deal with ultra-sensitive allegations, but survivors say these processes re-victimize students who report sexual assault.

Current collegiate policies for rape obstruct justice and treat criminal acts as mere violations of the school's code. This treatment of sexual assault keeps these crimes from making headlines. Students are all too aware of the dismissiveness and harassment that are much more likely outcomes than justice after reporting sexual assault. A university is not the criminal justice system: campus disciplinary committees are not set up like a court of law. School officials lack subpoena power and often end up with the accused and the accuser telling their stories, with a panel of campus officials trying to discern the truth. Colleges’ judicial board hearings are notoriously reluctant to sentence student rapists to any serious penalties. The result is that victims are unlikely to receive justice when they report an assault. They’re forced to testify before untrained student committees and answer invasive questions about their clothing choice and sexual history. All of these factors dissuade survivors of sexual violence from reporting the crime: In fact, the Center estimates that 95 percent of sexual assaults on campuses are never reported.2

The basis of current legal regulations in this area, The Clery Act, is a well-meaning but ineffectual law. In 1986, Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her dorm. Later, Jeanne’s family discovered that Lehigh had failed to alert its students about 38 violent crimes that had occurred on campus in the three years prior to Jeanne’s murder. They joined other campus crime victims and persuaded the state legislature to pass a 1988 law requiring institutions of higher education to collect and publish crime statistics.

The federal Clery Act, based on the Pennsylvania law, applies to all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs. It mandates that colleges maintain a public log of crimes reported to have occurred on or near campus; the log must list the date, time, and general location of the incident. The log must be kept for seven years. Universities are required to report criminal homicide, forcible and non-forcible sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Hate crimes and other crimes involving bodily injury must also be reported. Universities must make the yearly statistics about these crimes public to students and prospective students. The DOE monitors compliance and can impose penalties of up to $27,500 for each institutional violation.

In 1992, the Act was amended to include basic guarantees for survivors of campus sexual assaults. Known as the “Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights,” the amendment stipulates that schools must give the alleged victim and the alleged assailant equal opportunity for witnesses in disciplinary proceedings, and equal notification of the proceedings’ outcome. Schools must also notify students who make a report that counseling services are available and that they have the right to go to local police; they must also be told about their options for changing classes and/or dorm assignments to avoid their alleged assailants.

Sadly, the Act has proven notoriously difficult for colleges to decipher and uphold, partly due to its vague definitions of crimes and partly due to the large number of school officials who must be polled to gather annual statistics. Confusion has been compounded by a lack of guidance from the DOE, which did not publish its Handbook for Campus Crime Reporting explaining the Clery Act’s unique provisions until 2005 —15 years after the law was passed.3

University administrators find loopholes to limit their reporting. Rapes are mischaracterized as “non-forcible” sexual offenses. Off-campus rapes are not counted. Victims are directed to rape advocacy programs instead of campus police because counselors, bound by confidentiality, are prohibited from reporting the crimes. This non-reporting means that schools record and report numbers of sexual assaults that are well below actual campus crime rates. As long as no formal complaint is made to the administration, the schools are not required to include an incident in their Clery Act statistics.

As of 2002, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that fewer than 37 percent of schools reported crime statistics in accordance with the Clery Act.4  Most schools claim to have reports of 0-1 sexual assault in the last three years. Given prevalence of campus rapes, it is clear that not enough of these crimes make it onto the college's official crime report listings, as required by the federal government.

Why would colleges do something so harmful to their students? Simply this: colleges have a conflict of interest. Colleges want to keep the official crime numbers low to protect their image and reputation. Underreporting gives parents and students a false sense of security. Universities need to constantly attract new students and donors. These financial needs conflict with the university’s legal and moral obligation to keep students and parents informed about how common rapes and other forms of sexual assault are on campus. Colleges’ failure to punish rapists to the fullest extent of the law sends a powerful message about what’s considered acceptable, or forgivable, behavior.

Students are being harmed by this false sense of security. Universities must start prioritizing the needs of their students over their fears about public image. One step to prioritize students is for universities to develop programs and policies that reduce female students’ risk of further victimization by a lack of justice and transparency in policy. Schools must cooperate and be held accountable in reporting sexual assaults. We deserve a safe campus. We deserve justice.

Xiaofan Pan is a medical student who loves to travel. She hopes to become a Jeopardy champion. She was a NWHN intern in summer 2011.

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1. U.S. Department of Justice, “The Sexual Victimization of College Women”, Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, 2000. Retrieved January 2 2012 from  http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault/assets/pdf/Justice_Department_Fisher_report.pdf.
2. Center for Public Integrity (Center), "Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice". Washington, DC: Center, 2010. Retrieved December 12 2011 from http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/campus_assault.
3. The Jeanne Clery Act Information Page Website: www.campussafety.org. Security
On Campus: College and University Campus Safety Information On-Line, maintained by Security on Campus, Inc., King of Prussia, PA, 2000.
4. Fisher B and Sloan JJ, Campus Crime: Legal, Social, and Policy Perspectives, Springfield IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1995.