Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Sex Crimes on Campus

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Sex Crimes on Campus

Article excerpt

Yearlong investigation finds failures of the justice system

Kathryn Russell said it happened in her campus apartment. For Megan Wright, the venue was a residence hall. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that one in five women college students will become the victim of a rape or attempted rape before she graduates.

But official reported data doesn't reflect the scope of the problem. And student victims face a litany of barriers that either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time, according to "Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice." The six-part series was published Dec. 1 -3 and Feb. 24-26 by the Center for Public Integrity.

Reporter Kristin Jones and I spent a year surveying crisis-services programs, building databases from records requests, deciphering disciplinary procedures and sexual assault policies, and interviewing students, victim advocates, college administrators and Education Department officials. What we found suggests systemic problems with the way colleges and universities handle reports of sexual assaults.

Our investigation reveals that students deemed "responsible" for alleged sexual assaults often face little or no punishment, while their victims' lives are frequently turned upside down. Many times, victims drop out of school; students found culpable go on to graduate. According to our investigation, "responsible" findings rarely lead to tough punishment like expulsion - even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders.

It isn't just this disparity in outcomes that seems remarkable, but also the commonalities among campus rape cases. Research shows that repeat offenders actually account for a significant number of sexual assaults on campus, contrary to what those who handle these cases believe. We found many schools are slow to realize they have what experts call "undetected rapists" in their midst.

Culture of silence

Critics question whether faculty, staff and students should even adjudicate what amounts to a felony crime. But these internal campus proceedings grow from two federal laws, known asTitle IX and the Clery Act, which require schools to respond to claims of sexual assault on campus and to offer key rights to victims.

The Education Department enforces both laws, yet its Office for Civil Rights rarely investigates student allegations of botched school proceedings, largely because students don't realize they have a right to complain. When cases do go forward, the civil rights office rarely rules against schools, we found, and virtually never issues sanctions against institutions.

Equally chilling is the culture of silence surrounding rape among students. Many student victims don't report incidents at all, because they blame themselves, or don't identify what happened as sexual assault. We found that institutional barriers only compound the problem of silence, and few actually make it to a campus hearing.

Those who do come forward, though, can encounter secret disciplinary proceedings, closed-mouth school administrations and off-the-record negotiations. At times, school policies and practices can lead students to drop complaints or submit to gag orders - a practice deemed illegal. Though administrators defend existing processes as a fair and effective way to deal with sensitive allegations, our inquiry shows that the processes have little transparency or accountability.

The pervasiveness of campus sexual assault - largely hidden from public view and shrouded by official secrecy - drew us to the story. The project began in April 2008 after I had attended a conference on covering sexual violence. There, I met victim advocates who work on campuses and who spoke about the college judiciary process. They described what they saw as systemic failures, and led me to others who come in contact with student victims, sexual assault services coordinators, response team leaders and student activists. …

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