On Campus: How the System Fails Sexual Assault Survivors

 A flag for each of the potential 3000 women that will be assaulted on a campus the size of the University of Oregon - based on national averages.


By Maggie Freleng

Sexual assault on college campuses is on the rise. 

Even a former President and the Vice President are talking about the crisis. While promoting his new book, "A Call to Action," former President Jimmy Carter noted that "sexual abuse, sexual assaults take place more on university campuses than anywhere else in America."

It is estimated that the percentage of completed or attempted rape victimization among women in higher educational institutions may be between 20-25 percent over the course of a college career, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

Making things worse, some schools are not complying with Federal legislation that mandates them to handle and report these crimes.

Title IX 

When it comes to reporting, we are at a loss. Why do we hear about assaults so often, yet rarely see them make it to the justice system or reported in campus crime reports?

Is there a flagrant hiding of cases on campuses, or is there more going on to the handling of campus sexual assault cases than we realize?

Government Relations Manager Anne Hedgepeth of the American Association of University Women noted that there are a few things to talk about when discussing campus sexual assaults and how they move forward.

She said that first, there is a really good reason why some cases are kept on campus and don’t go through the criminal justice system, and that is because some assault survivors choose to keep their case within the school.

"Under Title IX, schools are required to provide accommodations to survivors," Hedgepeth told VITAMIN W. "[Schools] have a stake in what is going on, and they can really help a survivor when it comes to day-to-day experiences."

She listed, for example, schedule/class changes, housing changes, and support groups.

Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, states that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Many have argued that Title IX applies to sexual assault cases because, "when students suffer sexual assault and harassment, they are deprived of equal and free access to an education."

Because of this, many schools have codes of conduct and ways to ensure that a survivor gets the help they need. Carter even listed Title IX as one of his steps to advancing women. "Apply Title IX protection for women students, and evolve laws and procedures in all nations to reduce the plague of sexual abuse on university campuses."

However, even with Title IX in place, things can go horribly wrong, especially if a survivor does not know her rights.

In 2011, Dana Bolger, an Amherst College student, was raped and stalked by a classmate.

"When I went to report it, my college dean told me to go home, take the year off, get a job at Starbucks, and wait for my rapist to graduate," Bolger told VITAMIN W. "At the time, I didn't know about Title IX: I thought my dean's advice was shady and unethical but I had no idea it was also illegal."

It was not until she found out from an attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to victims of rape and sexual assault, about Title IX and how illegal her case was handled.

Photo via Dana Bolger from a protest at Amherst College about how they punish laptop theft more harshly than sexual assault.


Fortunately, after some time off, the VRLC helped her on her journey and she returned to campus to continue her deserved education safely. But that is not how her case should have played out.

"[Schools] really are supposed to help students with accommodation," Hedgepeth said. "They have to figure out ways to deal with this on campus to make sure schools are safe environments."

Where Is Justice?

In 2004, Laura Dunn, then a college freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was sexually assaulted by two men from the crew team.

"They walked me off campus and worked together to sexually assault and rape me while I was in and out of consciousness," she told VITAMIN W.

Initially, she told campus officials and was encouraged to report it to campus police, which she did. She said at first campus was supportive in that they provided her mental health support, but when it came to investigation and holding the men accountable, they were not willing to do so.

The campus police handed it off to city police who then handed it back to campus police. The police questioned the men but not any other witnesses, and lied about referring it to the prosecutors office when they had not. I ultimately threatened to file a police complaint to have it sent up to the district attorney's office; however, the law in Wisconsin did not consider alcohol an intoxicant in sexual assaults, so my case was declined as "reprehensible, but not illegal." I also filed a Title IX complaint against my school after it took over nine months to "investigate" when it only spoke to one of the two men who had sexually assaulted me. They said that "consent was moot" because we both had been drinking and ignored the fact that it was a gang rape where the two men worked together to assault me.

Dunn's case is a prime example of the convoluted nuances that take place during the handlings of campus sexual assaults.

Because of instances like this, many cases are not reported and/or do not go to the justice system, because survivors don’t want to deal with many of the issues that arise once a case makes it to the system. In fact, this damning statistic revealed in a  2010 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity suggests that only 10 to 25 percent of students found "responsible" for sexual assault were permanently kicked off campus.

No wonder students would rather change their schedule than pursue a complaint. Justice for sexual assault survivors is still far off.

The number of sexual assaults on campus is underreported; it's difficult to know by how much because there is a lack of public record and the differences in how and if cases are reported and handled.

All schools are required to make reported crimes public, and if they do not, they are breaking the law. Yet according to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, only about one-third of schools are fully compliant with the federal Clery Act, which requires schools to report on-campus crime statistics to federal education officials.

The reporting of assaults needs to be overhauled: students need to feel comfortable reporting, which needs to be accessible, and schools should have procedures in place for response policies and support training.

Moving Forward

Hedgepeth believes that more needs to be done for campuses to work with properly trained police and the justice system, to create a balance and an environment where survivors feel comfortable filing complaints and seeing them through to prosecution.

Unfortunately, Dunn’s complaint took over two years to resolve, and it was not found in her favor. She never received justice through either the campus, civil, or criminal systems; but regardless, she still came out on top.

As a response to the "specific lack of legal services to support victims in their fight for justice," Dunn founded SurvJustice. Years after her struggle, she now works to provide others with support, empower activists, and encourage institutions to decrease and better handle sexual violence cases.

Dunn’s story, along with many others, also led to the improvement of Title IX. Thanks to brave survivors like Dunn, we now have the "Dear Colleague Letter," released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011, addressing campus sexual violence. At the announcement of the letter, Dunn was a VIP guest of Vice President Joe Biden.

Left: Laura Dunn with VP Joe Biden at the Release of the Dear Colleague Letter. Right: Laura Dunn and the former Asst Secretary of Civil Rights Russlynn Ali who authored the Dear Colleague Letter.

Bolger also came out on top starting—along with other survivors with similar stories—the online organization, Know Your IX, to empower students to know their rights and stop sexual violence.

Her advice is, "Know your rights and your schools' legal obligations, so if your school does violate your rights, you know it, and have the law to point to, to change it."

And to school officials: "Stop treating survivors like liabilities. For too long, colleges have gotten away with managing liability and mitigating risk—where risk is measured in terms of risk to schools' reputations rather than risk to students' safety. Stop this. First, it's a terrible thing to do. But now it's also a stupid thing to do: survivors are speaking up like never before and, in so doing, changing the incentive structure for colleges and universities dealing with sexual violence—no longer can schools mistreat survivors and expect to get away with it reputation intact.”

Thanks to brave, outspoken survivors like Dunn and Bolger, there is a path being paved for justice for sexual assault survivors, and while we continue to fight, we can also hope.

"I hope schools are looking at these stories as examples of what seems to work, what doesn’t work, and figure out what things you can do to help students feel safe," said Hedgepeth.

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Maggie Freleng is a Brooklyn-based journalist and photographer focusing on social justice, women's issues, gender, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @dixiy89.
Main Photo by Wolfram Butler on Flickr/Creative Commons