Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Investigation Into Sexual Assaults On College Campuses

The Center For Public Integrity released a 3-part series last week which highlights important information about sexual violence on college campuses.

From Sexual Assault on Campus Shrouded in Secrecy (First in a Series)
High Rates of Rape, Closed Hearings, and Confusing Laws

Three hours into deliberations by the University of Virginia’s Sexual Assault Board, UVA junior Kathryn Russell sat with her mother in a closet-like room in sprawling Peabody Hall. Down the corridor, two professors and two students were deciding her fate. Russell was replaying in her mind, endlessly, details of her allegations of rape when, she remembers, Shamim Sisson, the board chair, stepped into the room and delivered the order: You can’t talk about the verdict to anyone.

That stern admonition was a reminder of the silence Russell had been keeping since, she says, she struggled to break free from a fellow student’s grip in her dorm. That’s the account she gave local authorities, who declined to prosecute. And that’s what, in May 2004, she told the UVA Sexual Assault Board, whose decision she’d considered “my last resort.”

Russell stands among the tiny minority of students who have pursued rape complaints in the college judicial system — 33 at UVA, a school of 21,057 students, since 1998. She became well-versed in the confidential nature of the process as described in the school’s 2004 written procedures. Deans repeated the blanket stipulation to her “ad nauseam,” she says, throughout her three-month proceeding. The school later defended its mandatory confidentiality policy before the U.S. Department of Education even while softening the language.

Relating the gag order back in the room, Sisson, Russell says, provided a strong incentive to keep quiet: If you talk of the verdict, you’ll face disciplinary charges

I wish I were surprised by this threat, but this reflects a mindset where the perception of safety is placed above the actual safety of students. Thankfully the Dept. of Education ruled this policy to be in violation with the law.

What's striking to me is the pervasive conflict between what administrators say and what they do. College rape victims are publicly encouraged to report and yet the systems in place to respond to reports of rapes often make this encouraged action pointless at best. It doesn't matter if administrators don't intend to create hostile environments since incompetence in a particular area can be as damaging as systems set up and maintained with malice toward rape victims.

I encourage everyone to read the entire series. Part 2: Barriers Curb Reporting on Campus Sexual Assault. Part 3: Campus Sexual Assault Statistics Don’t Add Up

Thank you to everyone at the Center For Public Integrity especially to Kristen Lombardi and Kristin Jones who wrote different parts of this series.

What this series highlights for me is why sexual assault of college women is so common and it tells me that this rate is not fixed. If systems can enable rapists getting away with their crimes then they can disenable rapists as well.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:24 AM   6 comments links to this post


At December 08, 2009 1:06 PM, Blogger Georgia Girl said...

Marcella, I KNEW you'd do a piece on this! I saw the interview with Kristen Lombardi on CNN, and immediately read her investigative report. Do you not feel this is a big breakthrough?

At December 08, 2009 2:20 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

I believe this report in conjunction with other efforts such as is being done by SAFER (Students Active For Ending Rape) to improve college's official policies will have a big impact.

The key for me is to not let up on the pressure for all those who respond to do their jobs with compassion and competence.

At December 08, 2009 3:20 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

Hi Marcella,

Glad you linked to the report! It's great work. Just to clarify, CPI wasn't really working in conjunction with us exactly, but they are being very supportive of our work and did reach out to us when they were researching. We're super excited about this report obviously. Hope that people keep talking....

Sarah from SAFER

At December 08, 2009 4:20 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


I understood that, but others might not so thanks for the clarification.

When I responded to Georgia Girl, I was thinking about how unconnected actions can have a connected impact.

At December 14, 2009 6:56 PM, Anonymous Mia said...

Why can't she talk about the verdict to anyone? How is that going to help? That doesn't make sense, except as an attempt to brush the ('alleged') incident under the rug, hoping that no one will hear anything about it (eg. prospective students). It is dishonest trying to hide the verdict, and the college students have a right to know whether someone has been convicted recently for a sexual assault committed on their school grounds.

At December 14, 2009 8:40 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


You are right that the university policy requiring silence doesn't make sense.

After a court battle which the university lost they could no longer threaten rape victims in this way. I suspect they didn't want their process scrutinized.


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