Monday, March 08, 2010

Clueless: Or Research On College Response To Reports Of Rape

I've been waiting to blog about the second series of articles about college sexual assaults released a week and a half ago by the Center For Public Integrity until I could read this series and put all my thoughts together. I blogged about the first series in Dec. of 2009.

Here are links to the latest set: A Lack of Consequences for Sexual Assault, An Uncommon Outcome at Holy Cross, Lax Enforcement of Title IX in Sexual Assault Cases, and ‘Undetected Rapists’ on Campus: A Troubling Plague of Repeat Offenders.

I prefaced the title of this post with clueless because this seems to describe most college and university administrators when it comes to how they handle reports of sexual violence against their students. Colleges and universities are supposed to be about learning but many of those who handle reports of sexual violence seem to be determined to stick to ignorance and institutional self-protection. This is intentional incompetence.

Too often those charged with responding to reports of rapes do nothing meaningful because most rape cases involving students are "complex." What I have to say about that response is, "Excuse me? Institutions of higher learning cannot handle anything complex?"

No wonder so many rapists can be classified as undetected rapists.

One of the universities discussed is the University of Wisconsin - Madison which according to their website should have the ability to deal with complex issues:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has long been recognized as a center for interdisciplinary studies related to law and legal institutions. The Center for Law, Society, and Justice (CLSJ) is the organizational home for academic programs related to law and legal institutions, other than the programs offered by the University of Wisconsin Law School.
If colleges and universities can teach this stuff why is practicing it seemingly insurmountable? The most common excuse seemed to be that disciplinary hearings are not criminal trials, but that is an excuse. Study of the law includes civil proceedings.

Too often according to the Center for Public Integrity investigation, those charged with handling reported sexual assault will abandon their inquiry if the student accused denies committing a sexual offense. When this happens there was no actual investigation. Same goes when the inquiry ends because of alcohol consumption.

Many organizations do only the minimum amount for their organization to stay out of trouble and to protect themselves. The article on Lax Enforcement of Title IX in Sexual Assault Cases shows that many of the rules are treated by the federal government like nothing more than suggestions.

One of the biggest areas of concern for me is the handling of sexual violence against students who had been drinking since this is where denial and victim blaming really flourish. A drinking rape victim is often viewed more negatively than a drinking rapist.

In the reports, several college officials make statements which indicate that they view some or all of these sexual assaults as lesser offenses or simply as relationship disputes. This dismisses the very real trauma these student victims experience. This also communicates to rapists that they have been effectively been given a free pass to do whatever sex crime they want as long as they select victims who aren't sober.

Colleges which have been unable to determine (in their own assessment of a case) whether there was a sexual assault or not have sanctioned those who reported being raped as if, "We don't know what happened," is equal to, "We know no sexual offense occurred."

We understand that being shot with a handgun isn't something which should be dismissed as a relationship issue or ignored for months if both the shooter and the shootee had been drinking first and we understand the importance of needing to know promptly if a drunken student can get to the point of shooting at fellow students, but many people seem to lose their ability to think logically when the attack is sexual.

The systems of response at many colleges make reporting seem futile at best which works directly against detecting undetected rapists. This helps explain why there is such a massive gap between college sexual assault reporting statistics and research based on victimization and perpetration surveys.

Another area of ignorance is the idea that the personal manner of the student accused can determine whether that student was or is a threat. Several of the college officials describe accused students who took responsibility for their actions as if that is a fix. Yet the investigation shows several of those students now claim to be completely innocent and disavow incriminating statements they made while they were students. So much for having taken genuine responsibility.

These college officials seem to be ignorant that many rapists complete their sexual assaults by manipulating others into trusting them when they are not at all trustworthy. The same skills these rapists use on their targets prior to the assault are used when those rapists are dealing with a sexual assault inquiry. The difference is that their original targets didn't have the same information available to them to help them make an informed assessment.

The biggest area of cluelessness seems to be in the responsibility the college or university has toward victims of sexual violence -- including those whose reports don't end with a ruling of guilt against the student who committed sexual assault. The responsibility to student rape victims must include those whose reports ended up in limbo.

It seems that most colleges use a binary system in their disciplinary hearings when they need to have a tertiary system where the third outcome is labeled as indeterminate. When this is the assessment or the assessment is that what happened was a misunderstanding which doesn't rise to the level of a violence of student conduct policies there needs to be full services given to the student who reported and protective restrictions placed on the accused student which will protect the person who reported and which will protect other students from a possible serial sex criminal or someone who serially misunderstands others lack of consent.

Beyond no contact with the student who filed the report, the accused student should be banned from any sexual activity with any student under the influence of alcohol or any other intoxicating substance and banned from group sexual activity.

If any of these restrictions are violated then that should result in an automatic expulsion.

From the first in this series:
College administrators stress that the sanctioning in disciplinary matters reflects the mission of higher education. Proceedings aren’t meant to punish students, but rather to teach them. “We’d like to think that we can always educate and hold accountable the student,” says Pamela Freeman, associate dean of students at Indiana University. IU officials defended suspending Margaux’s alleged attacker as, in effect, a teachable moment, according to interviews with the Center and documents from a federal investigation into the school’s handling of the case.
If colleges give light sentences to rapists they are teaching those rapists, but what they are teaching them is that rape isn't that big of an offense.

Administrators are not only teaching those rapists, they are teaching other rapists and they are teaching rape victims that teaching rapists without major practical consequences is a higher priority than ensuring the safety and recovery of rape victims and ensuring that other students are protected from known sex offenders.

Many administrators of institutions of higher learning seem to be in need of their own teachable moment. If they refuse to learn lessons which help reduce violence against their students they should face serious consequences.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:04 AM   7 comments links to this post


At March 09, 2010 2:41 AM, Anonymous Sum said...

Wondering about the practicality of your proposed tertiary system.
Very few accusations are provably false so most accusations where the accused is not proven guilty will end up as he said/she said situations, which if I understand you would be covered by 'indeterminate'.
In such a case do you see your suggested punishments or restrictions on the accused as being applied on the basis of assumed guilt or for merely having an unproven accusation against him?

How do you imagine banning the accused from sexual activity working? (and why group activity specifically?)
Under threat of expulsion the accused is not going to report himself so for the banning to be effective either the accused victimizes a(nother) student who then comes forward or the accused's identity and the unproven accusation are made public which would likely be considered defamatory.

At March 09, 2010 9:12 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


Your excuse for rejecting restrictions isn't valid since you are asking colleges to assume the accused student has been exonerated if the student isn't classified as guilty. Colleges have a fudiciary duty to protect other students from known risks and any student who has been accused but not exonerated is a known risk.

A college can place restrictions on an accused student without assuming that student is guilty of rape. If a student has shown signs that he or she misunderstands someone's lack of consent or capacity to consent then that in itself warrants restrictions.

In fact this restriction should be placed on the accused student as soon as that student is accused of sexual assault as a condition of remaining at the college while the complaint is pending.

The first duty of colleges is to protect their students.

Many times cases are indeterminate because the alleged victim was passed out or slipped in and out of consciousness and therefore cannot testify about what was done every second. In many state laws once the alleged victim reaches this point the defense of consent becomes invalid. In most colleges this incapacitation is used to declare a case too complex.

The student wouldn't be banned from all sexual activity, only from sexual activity where it is acknowledged that the issue of consent is "complex." The restriction on group sexual activity is due to the coercive power of groups and the incorrect assumption some people have that consent is transferable and continues even if the other person looses consciousness.

You are wrong that revealing that a student has been accused of rape is defamatory. That would be a simple statement of fact. The only possible violation would be of privacy policies.

I imagine banning the accused from specified sexual activity by doing so. I imagine enforcing this ban by notifying college safety staff, the student's advisor and by using any credible report of the banned activity as evidence.

If a student is caught by college security attempting to get sex from someone under the influence that student should be given a warning.

At March 09, 2010 9:29 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


Also when you reference "he said/she said" as if cases without outside witnesses are always indeterminate you are advocating for incompetence which allows rapists to run free on college campuses as long as their crime is seen only by their victims.

At March 10, 2010 3:28 AM, Anonymous Sum said...

On protecting students, do you see a difference between the risk represented by the general population and the risk represented by an accused student neither found guilty nor exonerated? Does an accusation with no supporting evidence alter the perceived risk? Does the nature of an accusation (eg. drunken mistake vs deliberate intimidation) alter the perceived risk?
If someone is accused of something that can't be proven either way, how does that make them a known risk to other people?

It's appropriate to take action to ensure against future assaults in cases where it's confirmed that the decisions or attitudes of the accused are problematic but in cases where there's no evidence of wrongdoing and no indication that future wrongdoings are likely I don't see that it can be appropriate to treat the accused differently to any other student just because he can't prove his innocence.

While revealing that an accusation has been made against a student is just a statement of fact, forcing the student to obey certain rules and banning them from certain activities shows the student is considered untrustworthy and predatory despite there being no proof of guilt. I don't care if the unprovably guilty are treated this way but object to the unprovably innocent being so treated and I believe both groups would be included in your indeterminates.

At March 10, 2010 9:05 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...


It is always appropriate to take action to ensure against future assaults when there has been a credible report of rape. What you are advocating is for colleges to be civilly negligent.

The 4 criteria for negligence are:
1) Duty - colleges have a duty to their students' safety.

2) Breach - in your desired scenario breach will happen by the college not acting at all when only the victim and rapist saw what happened.

3) Causation - if a college gets a credible report of rape and knows the identity of the alleged rapist and does nothing to protect other students from future assaults their inaction has a causal link to any rapes which that student commits while still a student.

4) Damages - rape of a student left at risk after that student's rapist was reported by another student causes measurable damages.

At March 10, 2010 12:22 PM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

Well I don't understand why rape is even in the category of crimes which are handled by schools. Do they conduct murder investigations?

The situation reminds of Blackwater where the employees are supposed to let the exployer deal with the crime of rape. Obviously, both the employers and schools have a vested interest in sweeping the problem under the rug, so I would never expect to have a rape case handled as it should be.

At March 14, 2010 4:38 PM, Blogger SKM said...

Does the nature of an accusation (eg. drunken mistake vs deliberate intimidation) alter the perceived risk?

Well, it certainly doesn't alter the real risk. "Drunken mistake", eh?

How does it matter if the rapist "made a drunken mistake" or used "deliberate intimidation"? It only matters if one's primary concern is the rapist, not the victim.


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