By Katie Sola at Mashable
College rape survivors and activists have claimed for years that schools fail to fully investigate sexual assaults and offer survivors adequate support — and a survey of 440 four-year institutions by the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) backs up these assertions.
Among other shortcomings, the report, released last Wednesday, finds widespread disregard for federal law and Title IX regulations in reporting and investigation practices. It also finds the phenomenon of athletic departments investigating allegations against their own student athletes to be common practice.
“The report really confirms what survivors have been saying for years now. That essentially universities are failing all across the board, from prevention services to investigation to reporting to disciplinary procedures to even having the personnel they’re required under law to have,” says Dana Bolger, founder and co-director of Know Your IX, a student organization against sexual violence.
According to the findings, more than 20% of schools investigated fewer cases than they reported to the Department of Education, violating the federal Title IX requirement that schools investigate all sexual assault complaints. 10% of the schools do not have a Title IX coordinator to oversee investigations and ensure Title IX compliance.
It finds that 22% of schools allow athletic departments to supervise investigations into student-athletes, and 40% have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years.
The internal investigations that do happen are significantly flawed, according to the report. For example, more than 40% of the nation’s public schools allow students to help adjudicate cases, and 30% do not educate adjudicators about ‘rape myths.’
Colleges and universities are also unaware of the scope of the problem of sexual assault. According to the Department of Justice, fewer than 5% of rapes are reported to campus authorities. Sexual assault hotlines and websites have been shown to increase reporting, but fewer than half of the schools surveyed provide them. Eight percent of schools do not allow confidential reporting of assault at all.
The problem of sexual assault on campuses has drawn national attention recently as female students from high-profile schools came forward saying their institutions had failed to adequately investigate their accusations of rape, or refused them academic and living accommodations.
In 2012, Angie Epifano, an Amherst student, wrote about her rape in a campus newspaperop-ed. She claimed Amherst’s administration refused to help her change dorm rooms, counseled her to forgive and forget and told her there was “no point,” in trying to press charges.
Epifano withdrew from Amherst and her accused rapist graduated with honors. Amherst reorganized its sexual assault investigation procedures and hired a sexual respect educator, a Title IX co-ordinator and two new psychotherapists.
In March an anonymous Harvard student wrote a similar op-ed saying she had contemplated suicide because Harvard did not move her assailant out of her residential building. She said her assault did not fall within Harvard’s narrow definition of sexual assault, leaving her unable to press charges through the Harvard disciplinary system. In response, Harvard revamped its policies and created a centralized investigatory office.
For many, the most surprising finding was that 22% of schools allow athletic departments to investigate charges against student-athletes. “This, to me, is borderline outrageous,” said McCaskill in a press conference Wednesday. “You cannot expect a department that depends on the physical prowess of a man or woman to be fair, or even have the appearance of being fair,” she added.
“I was shocked that the number was that high,” says Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. “I think it’s an anachronism, from the time where athletes could do no wrong and it was up to the athletic department to protect them,” he added. Bolger was also surprised, remarking, “That was really startling to me.”
Even the NCAA President Mark Emmert said he was “surprised and dismayed” when McCaskill questioned him about the finding in a recent Senate hearing last week.
“After years of pressure, too many of our institutions of higher learning won’t take sexual assault seriously. That has to end now,” wrote McCaskill in a USA Today column.
The American Council on Education, higher education’s largest lobbying group, has criticized the report. Ada Meloy, the group’s general counsel, told Inside Higher Ed that colleges were “greatly disappointed” by it. She said it “ignores how hard colleges and universities are working to address this serious and complex societal issue.” Sexual assault cases are difficult to resolve without witnesses and physical evidence, she explained.
Critics also worry that the intense national focus on this issue pressures schools to abandon due process for the accused. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit advocating for free speech on campus, criticized the report’s lack of focus on due process, which is mentioned only twice in the report.
In a review, Will Creeley wrote on their website that the report actually revealed the lack of due process in higher education investigations, citing the statistic that 14% of schools do not let the accused have an adviser at the meeting, and a quarter do not permit the accused to be present at the hearing at all.
Brett Sokolow, president of the consulting and law firm the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, expressed concern to the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the mounting pressure on institutions from the White House and the Office for Civil Rights to punish alleged rapists.
“There is a startling and disturbing lack of due process and guidance as to what alleged perpetrators should be doing during this process,” he said, pointing out that a flawed process can be unfair to both the accused and the accuser.
McCaskill, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, will use the survey data to draft federal legislation with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). For her part, Bolger, of Know Your IX, says survivors’ individual stories are often disbelieved, and it is “so helpful” to have the data to back up survivors’ accounts — it moves the conversation beyond the realm of argument around individual stories and into the actionable world of hard facts.