Colleges across the United States are being accused of botching investigations into sex crimes.
President Obama’s alma mater, Occidental College, allegedly covered up rapes.
And a former student sued sued Wesleyan University for failing to protect her from a fraternity that she says was known as a “rape factory.” There are allegations that other schools mishandled sexual assaults too.
Why this is happening:
Colleges sometimes have staff who aren’t trained to handle sexual assault allegations and don’t have consistent procedures for conducting investigations, experts say.
Another issue is that colleges can appear to want to protect aggressors as well as victims — sometimes discouraging students from filing formal complaints about sex assaults.
It can be problematic when colleges don’t have staff specifically dedicated to handling sexual assault allegations, Leslie Gomez, a leading sexual assault policy consultant, tells Business Insider.
“In society at large … we have very clearly demarcated roles that people play — police officer, attorney, judge, psychologist — and each one of those agencies has a very clear mission,” Gomez says.
“When we think about a college or a university, the institutional context is far more complicated … That institution is not trained law enforcement, is not a trained adjudicator, and does not necessarily have the specific, directed staff to address sexual assault,” she said.
While sexual assault at colleges has long been a problem, complaints against schools have been more prevalent lately. Gomez and another expert we spoke to, Gina Smith, say a paradigm shift is partly responsible for the recent complaints.
Victims of sexual assault and harassment are talking about their experiences more openly and publicly, which has helped break the “culture of silence” surrounding sexual violence. Social media offers people a new platform to get their stories out to the public.
The Department of Education also furthered the discussion with a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that outlines clear expectations about how cases of sexual harassment and sexual violence should be handled at universities.
Sex crimes are way too common at universities — in one survey used in 2012 CDC data regarding sexual violence, 19% of undergraduate women reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault in college.
The universities involved:
Here are some of the more serious allegations of mishandled cases:
Occidental College in Los Angeles doesn’t take sex crimes very seriously, according to a federal complaint filed by female students, faculty, and alumni. The punishment for one student found responsible for two separate incidents of rape and sexual assault was writing a book report, the complaint alleges. One woman said she was raped her first week on campus and that an administrator said she “met with my rapist and he didn’t seem like the type of person who would do something like that.”
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is the subject of a similar complaint accusing it of being soft on sex crimes. One student said that after a fellow student sexually harassed her and broke into her room, college administrators discouraged her from taking formal action and implied that she was partly to blame, according to The New York Times.
Students at the University of North Carolina filed a complaint with the Department of Education accusing the school of protecting rapists while further victimizing students. One student said an administrator told her she was “being lazy” when she wanted to take a medical leave from her classes after a rape left her with post traumatic stress disorder and depression. Similar allegations from other students at UNC have sparked a widespread conversation on the university’s handling of sex crimes. The school’s then-associate dean of students, Melinda Manning, eventually resigned, acknowledging that many students who had come to the university for help ended up wishing they hadn’t. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she told The Huffington Post.
Yale University was recently fined $165,000 for underreporting serious sex crimes. The Department of Education said that Yale’s failures to comply with the Clery Act, which requires any school whose students get federal financial aid to report crimes on campus, “very serious and numerous.” The department also said the violation endangered Yale students and employees who rely on this information to take precautions for their safety.
The University of Montana was the subject of a yearlong Department of Justice investigation regarding its handling of sexual assault on and off campus. The DOJ noted that six football players were accused of sexual assault in a three-year period and, until recently, campus police policies on sexual assault were “nonexistent.” Last year, UM allegedly waited a week to report a sexual assault and the suspect fled the country before city police were notified. A DOJ civil rights official said female students who reported sexual assault or harassment were “unfairly belittled, disbelieved or blamed for speaking up about what had been done to them,” according to the Billings Gazette.
Otterbein University‘s student newspaper reported that the central Ohio school was violating federal law by requiring students involved in sexual assault cases to sign a form that included a nondisclosure clause. The form, which victims were reportedly required to sign, said in part, “Privacy must be maintained and the matter should not be discussed.” The university has since removed the clause from the form, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
These aren’t the only universities that have been accused of handling sexual assault cases badly.
Dartmouth College, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California are also a target of federal complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education last month, and Amherst College was heavily criticised last year for its treatment of rape victims.
Many universities that have been the subject of these complaints have overhauled their sexual assault policies. A Swarthmore official has said that sex assault on campus and the process in which cases are dealt with is a problem nationally and not necessarily unique to any university in particular.
Amherst, UNC, and Occidental brought in Smith and Gomez to help review their procedures for sexual assault cases. Swarthmore has made personnel and policy changes as well as increased training to improve its handling of sex-related cases. The number of reported sex offenses at Yale has gone up since the Department of Education began looking into its Clery Act violations, suggesting that the school has ended its practice of withholding or misreporting information. And DOJ officials have said that the University of Montana has created a “blueprint for reform that can serve as a model across this country.”
“By and large, we don’t see lack of good intent [with these colleges], we see lack of effective implementation,” Gomez said.
We contacted every college and university mentioned in this post for a response. Here’s what they had to say:
Occidental College: “Our entire college community is determined to get this right. We have assembled some of the country’s top experts and, based on their advice, taken a series of actions that we believe will put Occidental at the forefront of addressing sexual misconduct.” (statement from Jim Tranquada, Occidental’s director of communications)
Yale University: “The University believes that the Department [of Education]’s imposition of maximum fines is not warranted based on the particular situations that resulted in findings of violations and, as a result, does not meaningfully advance the goals of the Clery Act. … As you probably know, in its May 2011 Final Program Review Determination, the Department of Education noted that Yale had taken several corrective measures to strengthen its reporting process. There is no reporting issue now that the University has to address. The matters in question date back a number of years, including as far back as 2001.” (statement from Tom Conroy, Yale’s press secretary)
University of Southern California: “The University of Southern California takes all reports of sexual violence extremely seriously and has many resources available to assist students who experience unwanted sexual contact. In all reported instances, we thoroughly investigate and take appropriate disciplinary, as well as interim remedial, action. Previous investigations have resulted in a wide variety of sanctions, up to the dismissal of students from the university, including in cases where no criminal charges were filed.” The rest of the statement can be found here.
University of North Carolina: Susan Jeannine Hudson at UNC directed us to a Campus Conversation on Sexual Assault website the university set up in response to the allegations. The site includes messages from the university chancellor as well as a page that outlines actions the school has taken, including removing jurisdiction for sex assault cases from the student honour System.
Otterbein University: “The document in question is a checklist of the items discussed by an administrative investigator with the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator and any witnesses as part of an internal investigation of an alleged sexual assault.
…One item on the list stated: “Privacy must be maintained and the matter should not be discussed.” This item was intended to protect the alleged victim’s privacy by requesting all parties involved in the internal administrative investigation not discuss the matter outside of the investigation. While it is not a binding agreement, the signature confirms the interviewee has been informed and understands the privacy issues involved.” (statement from Otterbein Student Affairs Dean Robert M. Gatti)
The university has since removed the privacy clause from the checklist.
Amherst College: “The tragic fact is that sexual assault is terrible and pervasive problem on college campuses and in American society generally. At Amherst, we’ve taken many steps in the past year in particular to try and prevent such acts of violence, and respond effectively when it does occur. We remain committed to making our campus as safe as possible, and will continue to hold our institution accountable in the future.” (statement from Amherst Director of Media Relations Caroline Hanna)
Hanna also pointed us to Amherst’s Sexual Respect website and a letter from the president of the college that outlines steps taken and actions planned for the future. Smith and Gomez also helped write this report reviewing the college’s policies for sexual assault.
The other universities mentioned in this story did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
These documents provide a deeper look at the allegations against Occidental and the University of Montana.
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