United States: Campus Sexual Assault Investigations Criticized for Failing Victims
Saturday, August 02, 2014 10:30 AM

Fifty-five US colleges and universities are under investigation by the Department of Education for potential violations of federal anti-discrimination laws in connection with their handling of campus sexual assault. US Federal officials estimate that up to 20 percent of students will be sexually assaulted during college, and the first several months of freshman year are commonly referred to as the “Red Zone” for increased risk. Student victims often turn to their schools for help rather than the police because they are promised a faster process with increased support and confidentiality, but many come to regret this decision when the school's procedures prove insensitive to their needs and ineffective at holding perpetrators accountable.

As reported in the New York Times, in September 2013, a student named Anna was sexually assaulted by three football players just two weeks into her freshman year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. After just 12 days of investigations and hearings, the players’ names were cleared and their football careers continued while Anna suffered the consequences:  harassment from her peers for accusing the school’s players, lasting mental and physical trauma, and a year-long withdrawal from college.

Despite the fact that Hobart and William Smith Colleges offer rape seminars, a trained misconduct panel, counseling for victims, and no-contact orders against the accused, Anna’s case reflected many of the problems associated with on-campus adjudication in the US. The investigation was rushed; Anna was interrupted with inappropriate questioning during the hearing; the hearing was held before her rape kit results were available; two of the three panelists were not shown the initial medical records containing evidence of forcible rape; witness testimony was misrepresented to suggest Anna’s consent to the assault; and a letter revealing Anna’s full name was distributed to several other students in the course of the proceedings. Lawyers and family members were not allowed to participate in the disciplinary process, and the panelists themselves received little or no training in handling sexual assault cases. Hobart and William Smith is one of the schools currently under federal investigation.

Earlier this year the White House created the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and issued its first report containing recommendations for schools to combat sexual violence. These recommendations included student surveys, which are consistently suggested by student victims and advocates; bystander intervention training for male students; and improved misconduct policies, investigation techniques, confidentiality, and victim assistance. The Task Force also created a new website, NotAlone.gov, which provides sexual assault resources to students and schools.

Compiled from Bogdanich, Walt, Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t: How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint, The New York Times (July 12, 2014); Steinhauer, Jennifer, White House to Press Colleges to Do More to Combat Rape, The New York Times (April 28, 2014); Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault (April 2014).