Student Rights vs. Reality in Colleges' Response to Rape on Campus

Recently, the media has highlighted several instances in colleges nationwide responded to sexual assault experienced by their students in ways that may have violated the student's rights. In this guest blog post, University of South Carolina Student Kathryn Albano reflects on the issue of sexual violence on campus and how the revelations about how schools respond have motivated her to become involved in the fight against sexual violence. 

You know you love your job when you’re excited to see an article on sexual violence in your fashion magazines. I believe it’s so vital for survivors of sexual violence to speak out about what has happened to them and let others know that they are surviving, even in a culture and community that works against them in every way.  As a college student, this has hit home for me with the growing number of articles and media attention around the issue of sexual assault on campus. Since 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted during college, one would hope that colleges would attack the issue directly but some only further traumatize young women who report an assault.

In October of 2013, Marie Claire magazine reported on the experiences of several women at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  One young woman who was violently raped by a fellow student chose to pursue her case through the University’s Honor Board, thinking that would be less painful and lead to a faster resolution than the criminal justice system.  During seven hours of questioning, the Board asked questions like “Did the antidepressants she had been taking predispose her to imagining the assault?” before finding her attacker not guilty “since she and her rapist hadn’t known each other, he couldn’t have been aware of how drunk she was or that she didn’t like being ‘pushed around.’” The appeals process went on for more than a year and her attacker graduated, meaning anything the Honor Board could have done would have had no effect. An administrator at UNC asked another survivor, “Rape is like a football game, if you look back on the game and you’re the quarterback…is there anything that you would have done differently?”

This issue first began to hit the media with the 2010 suicide of a student who felt that Notre Dame University failed to respond to her report of a sexual assault by one of their football players, and accelerated with a former Amherst College student’s 2012 account of how she felt the College mishandled her report. Other recent publicity centered around the University of California—Berkeley and Occidental College, whose conduct boards both punished assailants (some of which had been convicted of felony assault) with writing assignments; the University of Montana and Missoula law enforcement’s handling of several recent cases; Northwestern University, where protests erupted when a professor’s punishment for ‘inappropriate sexual conduct’ toward a student  was to be denied a pay increase; and Huffington Post’s map of colleges showing dozens of schools whose actions led to formal complaints and recent report on how note-taking by law enforcement may downplay or misrepresent the survivor’s account of the assault.

As a student, my biggest concern is that many colleges seem to try to silence women who report an assault, when in reality their legal obligation is to take these reports seriously, alert students of risks to their safety, and report statistics on how often assault occurs on their campus. Those statistics are then read by students, as well as by thousands of concerned parents when helping their high school senior choose their school of choice. I know my dad paid very close attention to these numbers when I was choosing schools to apply to, but I don’t think he imagined that some schools seem to be manipulating those reports by trying to keep the number of rape cases reported and tried as low as possible. It is in a school’s best interest to appear safe, but what I’ve learned is that low numbers of reported sexual assaults on campus may actually say that the school doesn’t have the necessary policies in place to ensure that students who are assaulted are able and encouraged to report those assaults, or that the school doesn’t respond in a way that ensures the safety of their students and punishes the assailant to the extent of the law. Instead of being safe, women on campuses with low rape rates may just be suffering in other ways.

So, I went looking for the crime statistics for my college campus and found that the most recent numbers posted in this section are from 2008…so there are 5 years of data missing. Those statistics also show that on a campus of over 30,000 students, there were four or fewer sexual assaults reported per year. Digging a little deeper, I was able to find another report showing in 2012, 50 sexual assaults were reported to the office that works with sexual assault survivors on campus but only 2 were reported to law enforcement—which means that only 4% of students who reported their assault to the on campus office reported to law enforcement, a much lower percentage than seen in national studies but in line with research that universities sometimes underreport sexual assaults documented by other agencies.

Schools are also required to issue ‘timely warnings’ to students of assaults on campus that pose a risk to student safety. Just last year, many of my fellow students were outraged that our school waited over 24 hours to alert the student body of a reported rape on campus.  This was troubling not only because of the delay, but also the alert stated the delay was due to the need to ‘verify her claim.’ Including this in the text of the alert supports the idea that it is common for assault reports to be false, when in reality it is far more likely that students fail to report a rape that did happen then report falsely. Another common misperception relates to substance facilitated assault. Nearly half of sexual assaults on campus are substance facilitated, but some students are still unaware that having unwanted sex under the influence of alcohol is criminal sexual conduct and not just a drunken mistake. There is a clear picture many of us have about rape: dark alley, huge hooded figure, bruises. But that is only rarely the case, and students who haven’t received education on consent and sexual assault (which schools should provide as part of their obligation to prevent assault) may not realize their experience is an assault. 

It is clear that many schools actively work to hide rape from their students despite their legal obligations and student rights.  Marie Claire’s article profiled students who were concerned about this institutional shaming and are working to not only prevent rape but also change what will happen to a survivor if they choose to do something about their attack. They created a non-profit known as End Rape on Campus, part of a national movement on campuses to better serve survivors and change statistical trends through spreading accurate information. These young women took their pain and turned into something beautiful. If you’d like to become active in this movement, you can start by informing yourself about your Title IX rights through the US Department of Education, and contacting your school to see what they do to serve survivors on campus and prevent sexual violence (every school is required to provide services, including USC, Columbia College, Midlands Technical College, Benedict College, Central Carolina Technical College, and more).  I also chose to get involved by volunteering with Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, which offers free, confidential counseling and advocacy services to students and other residents of the Midlands.

If you have been sexually assaulted, you can receive medical care at any emergency room (typically at no cost), and can choose to report the crime to law enforcement or through an anonymous reporting protocol where you can receive medical treatment without law enforcement’s involvement. You can receive free and confidential counseling services through Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands and can learn more about your options by contacting their 24-hour crisis hotline at (803) 771-7273 or (800) 491-7273; additional services may be offered by your school. If you believe your school’s response to your report violated your rights, you can file a complaint through this office; the Justice Department’s policy is that it is never acceptable for the school to retaliate against a student for making a complaint.

Kate Albano is a student at the University of South Carolina, where she studies Anthropology with a concentration in Gender and Sexuality. After graduation, she hopes to bring further awareness about sexual assault and women’s issues to the women’s magazine industry in New York City. She would, one day, like to start a program that teaches young girls self-confidence and self-respect.