Ninety-five percent of college rapes go unreported. One in four women are sexually assaulted while in university.
These numbers highlight the troubling sexual assault culture present on many university campuses. Recently, the extent of this issue was publicized by a bevy of articles published in college newspapers—kick-started by former Amherst College student Angie Epifano, in which current and former students chronicled difficulties encountered with administrations following assault. Changing this culture that through its inaction, condones sexual assault, is of the utmost importance, and relevant to the Catlin Gabel community as Upper School students will be headed to college in a matter of months or years.
An especially egregious example of this culture occurred in 2010 at the University of Notre Dame. Lizzy Seeberg, a freshman at St. Mary’s College, was sexually violated by a football player at nearby Notre Dame. Notre Dame campus police ignored her allegations, and after Seeberg committed suicide, administrators ignored her family’s requests for meetings, downplayed the incident, and blamed Seeberg for the assault. Six months after the assault, the alleged perpetrator was found “not responsible” in his disciplinary hearing, and accordingly, not so much as fined.
At Rice University in 2011, an abusive boyfriend was suspended for an academic year, but later allowed to resume his studies, and according to assaulted Rice students, “perpetrators [are] rarely punished.” At Amherst College, wrote Epifano, rapists have received “less punishment than students caught stealing,” and the penalty for nearly graduated rapists has been that they merely “receive their diploma two years late.”
A number of actions must be taken to create a university culture that respects victims, denounces sexual violence, and promotes sexual assault awareness and dialogue. The way victims and perpetrators are treated must be transformed, university assault policies must be made more comprehensive, and universities with rape cultures and histories of ignoring assault must acknowledge their shortcomings to move forward positively.
At Amherst, a counselor actively dissuaded Epifano from reporting her rapist and doubted her claims, saying the rape “might have just been a bad hookup.” The school’s past unwillingness to deal with sexual assault and dole out punishment accordingly help create and sustain a campus culture in which rape is commonplace. To change this culture, administrations must handle perpetrators differently than they do now.
Currently, many institutions hold disciplinary hearings for students who have allegedly violated school codes, including those regarding sexual assault. In assault cases, the accusers, while in the same room as their alleged attackers, must provide physical evidence that proves the attack occurred.
The inclination to treat sexual assault in the same manner as violations such as plagiarism and stealing is inappropriate, because it equates sexual violence with much milder infractions. Additionally, treating all crimes in the same manner ignores the fact that the potential negative ramifications for a victim of sexual assault can be very high; whereas other school violations may indirectly affect others, sexual assault very directly affects a victim. This victim should be respected, and penalizing his or her perpetrator is a way of respecting the victim. For these reasons, sexual assault begs to be handled differently than other transgressions.
One potential solution is a hybrid that includes some elements of the disciplinary hearing system. The hybrid would consist of a panel of individuals familiar in varying degrees with the school, a number of whom could be present for each hearing. These hearings must not be presided over by school administrators who may make decisions based on preserving a school’s reputation rather than the situation at hand. Like a disciplinary hearing, each student would be able to choose an advocate, such as an academic advisor. Individuals who witnessed or had intimate knowledge of the occurrence could be called to testify.
The panel would ultimately reach a consensus as to the perpetrator’s punishment, if they were found to have perpetrated. Ultimately, this decision would have to be approved by the school president or other high-up administrator, as the institution must support the panel’s pronouncements, or the hybrid would prove ineffective to changing campus attitudes.
Additionally, penalties must reflect the seriousness of the violations and the university’s commitment to combat sexual assault. Accordingly, penalties could range from suspension with probation to expulsion, and mandatory enrollment in rehab to prevent repetition of the behavior. Additionally, the infraction would be permanently marked on the student’s public and academic record, meaning future employers and institutions would learn of the incident.
To promote campus awareness of assault and its consequences, the panel could issue a report to the school community, although school privacy and confidentiality laws would determine the detail of the report. In keeping with these laws, names would most likely be omitted.
The hybrid would potentially be more relaxed and comfortable for all involved than a strict disciplinary hearing, and this atmosphere could be conducive to establishing the truth. The victim would have the ability to tell his or her story before the panel in person or through a recording device, or before both the panel and perpetrator in person or through a recording device.
To further change campus attitudes towards assault, colleges must provide more resources for victims. Certain resources should always be available on campuses, including 24/7 access to crisis services, a full-time staff member dedicated to sexual assault prevention and education, free and readily available emergency contraception, and the option to confidentially or anonymously report an incidence of sexual violence.
Additionally, schools’ sexual assault policies should cover both genders, and amnesty should be available to encourage students to report assault without fearing punishment for illicit activities engaged in when the assault occurred, such as underage alcohol consumption. Victims must be treated with respect, meaning their allegations, safety fears, and requests should be taken seriously. The type of clothing worn when the assault occurred should not be considered in a hearing, nor should a victim’s sexual history.
If the school does not offer the type of help the victim requires or wants, the institution should locate the places where the student can receive such help. At Reed College, counselors “provide referral information to off campus … supportive services, such as Portland Women’s Crisis Line if the student would prefer to utilize off campus resources (either in addition to or in place of Reed’s counseling services),” according to Kate Smith, director of health and counseling.
Crisis centers often employ therapists trained in dealing with trauma, which many universities are unable to provide. Instead of potentially viewing student mental health in the aftermath of an attack as a liability, schools should help students access services to help them heal.
Schools need to clarify and publicize their sexual assault policies, and actively educate their students about these policies and assault. It should be clear that schools advocate for assaulted students—students should not be left questioning whether or not to report assault.
Colleges that have mishandled past incidences of sexual assault should apologize to those affected, establish truth, and promote reconciliation. To do this, schools should create forums where current and former students are invited to share their experiences with assault.
Notre Dame is one such school that could benefit immensely from a forum. In addition to the Seeberg case, Notre Dame has a history of mishandling incidences of sexual assault. In 1974, a resident of South Bend, Indiana was gang-raped by members of the Notre Dame football team. An administrator referred to her as “a queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back,” and the accused players’ punishment was a one-year suspension. In 2002, a student was repeatedly ostracized and dissuaded from going public by the administration after being gang-raped by football players. The athletes were eventually expelled, but only following a lawsuit filed against the university by the state.
In the past, the school has mistreated survivors and their families, blamed victims, and protected violators from punishment. Tacit approval of assault perpetuates a culture in which sexual violence is ordinary yet ignored. This must be changed, especially if the school hopes to restore its image.
Sexual assault culture on college campuses is as widespread as it is troubling. The issue requires the immediate and sustained action of university administrations. With certain efforts, schools can change this culture and truly embody the progressivism higher education is meant to represent.