Campus Sexual Assault: Our Nation’s Silent Shame

Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate- George Will, Washington Post.

Micro-aggressions? Belittling the trauma that college women have suffered into a phrase as dismissive as “micro-aggressions” is truly infuriating in this day and age. We live in a society that still questions “Well, what was she wearing that night?” and Will’s column simply perpetuates that mindset. The fact that a well-respected columnist for the Washington Post would belittle a victim’s anguish after harassment and/or assault only heightens the stigma that already surrounds sexual assault and accounts for the diminutive percentage of victims who actually come forward. So let’s delve deeper into this issue…

For many, the journey to college means the launch from the comfortable, nurturing nest of suburbia to a campus beckoning new experiences, new areas of study, new friends, and new jobs all far away from home. These years are often some of the most transformative where students enter as 18 year old boys and girls and depart at the ripe age of 22, young men and women with big plans and ideas. However, for an 18 year old girl entering college, she also enters an incredibly dangerous environment. Hampering the prospect of self-discovery is the dauntingly high risk factor for sexual violence on college campuses.  Statistically speaking, 20% of college women experience dating violence, yet these incidents go vastly unreported. Only 12% of these women will ever come forward. Perhaps victimhood isn’t as coveted as George Will suggests. These women are ashamed and frightened, not seeking attention and recognition. What’s more, when reported, the compulsory response from campuses under Title IX legislation often does not result in more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. The mission of the Legal Aid Society’s “Legal Representation of Sexual Assault Victims on Campus” training I had the privilege of attending, was to elicit a response to attempt to quell this epidemic by giving lawyers and activists a fundamental understanding of how to provide legal representation to victims of sexual assault in campus administrative hearings and counseling on other legal options with both sensitivity and competence to the needs of victims specific to sexual assault. The hope is to empower young women to hold the system accountable for keeping themselves safe and comfortable in the learning environment.

Challenges Specific to College Campuses

Victims of sexual assault often want someone to know about the incident, but the shame and fear they feel following the event inhibits them from reporting even anonymously. This proves, again, that there are no “privileges” (as Will suggests) that accompany coming forward as a victim. They have a strong tendency to blame themselves, especially if they voluntarily consumed alcohol/drugs or engaged in sexual acts. They may have fears about the criminal justice system and may not trust the campus administration, and with good cause. Most frequently their offenders are not even required to leave their living arrangement even if it is near their victim’s. And reminders of the incident are often everywhere. The perpetrator might live in the very same residence hall as the victim. She might have to see him every day in economics class. Or in the dining hall. The rigor of academia coupled with the daily struggle of the psychological experience of being a survivor has a negative impact on the student’s grades, social life and decision making. They have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, dropout rates, and even report contemplation of suicide. In other words, being in the enclosed sphere of the college bubble exacerbates the trauma experienced by the survivor.

Title IX and the Clery Act

What rights do victims have if they do decide to come forward? Title IX dictates that “No person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In cohesion with the Clery Act, the government holds schools receiving aid accountable for the action taken against dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. In the 2011 the Dear Colleague letter was published by the Department of Education stating, “Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America. The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” However, navigating the process to present a case to the school could be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. In an initiative to address the overwhelming statistics of sexual assault on campus, the White House launched an initiative against sexual assault…the same initiative Will bashes in his article. Their website offers advice on how to navigate the tricky process of filing a complaint and details the services that are available for the victims. There has been an effort to let victims know that, in Obama’s own words, “We’ve got your back.” But do we? Have there been real changes in practice? When administrative hearings often result solely in the perpetrator going to “sensitivity training”, do we call that justice?

Lawyers getting involved

Gasps were heard and hands shot up from lawyers all around the room when the presenter explained the process of administrative hearings. Unlike a normal case, attorneys are not permitted to participate in the examination of witnesses nor the presentation of materials nor information unless they are specifically asked to do so by the hearing official, an unlikely occurrence. Rather the advisor (who need not be a lawyer) may confer and give advice to the student in a quiet, confidential and non-disruptive manner. The presenter, much to the amusement of the lawyers present, added that she personally prefers to use flashcards to communicate with the women she represents. There is merely a thin separator between the victim and the perpetrator and the victim must call witnesses, make statements and face the account of the other side, with her voice alone…. a large burden considering the trauma that she has gone through… Not to mention the fact the she is 18-22 years old with no experience in the ability that it takes to argue a good case. The system therefore is markedly geared towards the offender.

And the clincher—the advice about the importance of mitigating the client’s expectations. It is essential going into the hearing for the victim to realize that there will likely not be any consequences for the one at whose hands she suffered. Schools are worried about their reputation and are hesitant to acknowledge the problem. The fact that there are 55 schools in violation of Title IX this year alone demonstrates a dysfunctional system.

Remaining Questions

Why is it that the protocol for perpetrators of sexual assault is markedly different on a college campus than it is off of it? The law indicates that rape and sexual assault are felonies, yet in administrative hearings offenders are rarely even suspended. Until schools hold perpetrators accountable, it seems unlikely that these crimes will substantially decrease. But with antediluvian opinions from respected men like George Will that sexual assault is not an issue to be discussed, do we have any hope of real policy changes? While it is important to hear both sides of issues, the proposition that sexual assault and harassment are undetectable “micro-aggressions” merely takes several steps backwards in the quest for social justice. And proposing that being a victim is a coveted status? That those who find the strength to take action against their perpetrators are lying or exaggerating? It is this poisonous rhetoric that plagues our system. According to the Legal Aid seminar, it is absolutely essential that victims speak up even though the results may not be super satisfying. But why put victims through more than they’ve already experienced?  It seems as though the only solution would be a totally new approach on the collegiate system of appeals, and a complete change of priorities by people who have the ability to support the strange notion that victims of sexual assault deserve more.