A “Culture of Indifference”: The Urgent Need for Better Sexual Assault Policies and Practices on U.S. Campuses

Sarah Martino

For the past twenty years, experts on sexual assault, victims’ advocates, and students and their parents have repeatedly called on colleges and universities to take rape seriously and live up to the standards that, beginning with 1990’s Campus Security Act, have been outlined in Federal law. And for the past 20 years most schools have not been paying attention.  This "culture of indifference" must change.

For the past twenty years, experts on sexual assault, victims’ advocates, and students and their parents have repeatedly called on colleges and universities to take rape seriously and live up to the standards that, beginning with 1990’s Campus Security Act, have been outlined in Federal law. And for the past 20 years most schools have not been paying attention. Last week the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) launched the second series in a three-part investigative report on campus sexual assault, exposing what they call the “culture of indifference” on college campuses that allows perpetrators to go unpunished and re-traumatizes rape survivors. Indifference may indeed be putting it nicely.

CPI’s reporters accessed a database of sexual assault complaints and consequent proceedings from 130 schools that received federal grant money to improve their sexual assault programming—what they found is a disturbing unwillingness to seriously sanction students accused of assault, even if those students are found “responsible” (the college policy equivalent of a guilty verdict). Of all of the sexual assault cases that went through hearings at these 130 schools, only 10 to 25 percent of the students found responsible were actually expelled. More common sanctions include counseling for abuse of alcohol (if alcohol was a factor in the assault), and social probation or housing restrictions.

These facts are troubling both for the student survivors, who fear running into their attackers around campus and often leave the school, and to the rest of the student body: research says it’s likely that many sexual assaults on campus are committed by repeat offenders.

As a Board member of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), a national nonprofit that provides resources to college students who are trying to change how their school prevents and responds to sexual violence, I’m unfortunately not surprised by the CPI findings. SAFER repeatedly hears from student survivors struggling to navigate the complicated process of getting support and seeking justice, and who are often left to fend for themselves.

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That is not always the case, of course.  There is the rare but positive story, such as that of Melandy, a student at the College of Holy Cross highlighted in CPI’s report, and a rape survivor who actually saw her rapist expelled from school. Melandy’s story highlights what good can come of a strong sexual assault policy (and what damage can be done by a poor one).

Colleges that receive federal funding are mandated by law to maintain policies that outline sexual assault reporting and disciplinary procedures, and inform students of their rights and options. SAFER has a rubric of what makes a better sexual assault policy, but most of the policies we see fall far short. In particular, as evidenced by the CPI report, disciplinary procedures are often vague and students starting the process do not understand it. Although schools repeatedly claim to take sexual violence seriously, it’s uncommon for policies to establish even minimum sanctions for sexual assault, or to outline different sanctions for different categories of sexual misconduct. Administrators have rarely gone through specific training on how to hear and judge sexual assault cases.

Many argue that for all these reasons, sexual assault cases are not appropriate for administrators to handle, and should be turned over to local law enforcement. However, the fact remains that schools are currently required to take action in accordance with the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights, which explicitly states that school policies must address “procedures for on-campus disciplinary action in cases of alleged sexual assault.” The statute goes on to say that students must be informed of their option to involve law enforcement, but we must realize that many student survivors may not want to involve local police.

Clearly school administrations do not have the same powers as law enforcement, and as such they cannot technically “prosecute a crime.” But students who choose to use the campus disciplinary system realize the difference. What they expect, and rightly so, is that their school is invested in upholding standards of acceptable and unacceptable student conduct, as they often do when passing judgment in a host of other misconduct cases. Students are routinely dismissed from schools for drug charges and plagiarism. Why should a charge of sexual assault be different? Students are betrayed by their schools not because the school is unable to mirror the criminal justice system, but because the refusal to treat sexual assault as a serious breach of student conduct amounts to entirely dismissing the severity of the crime and the trauma undergone by the survivor.

This disregard for the victims is clear in the remarks of school administrators who told the CPI reporters that they view the disciplinary process not as “punitive” but “educational.” As the associate dean of students at Indiana University said, “We’d like to think that we can always educate and hold accountable the student.”

While I place much value in education as prevention, and understand that the role of a college is first and foremost to foster personal growth through learning, there is no excuse for turning one person’s rape into another’s “teachable moment.” While the campus disciplinary system may not be set up to mete out “justice” as one administrator pointed out, valuing an educational ideal over the health and safety of other students is unacceptable…and dangerous.

It’s therefore the school’s responsibility to ensure that their sexual assault policy is as fair, transparent, and effective as possible, which likely includes training staff to properly review cases. It’s also important to remember that a sexual assault policy sets the tone on campus for how seriously a school takes sexual assault, and what behavior is expected of its students. A thorough policy with strong definitions and clear procedures not only lets students know that sexual assault will not be tolerated, but it can help students assess their situation and encourages them to report assaults.

For evidence we can look back to Melandy. Melandy used portions of Holy Cross’s policy’s consent definition to make her case, noting that even though her accused rapist claimed she didn’t “say no,” the policy clearly stated that silence cannot be assumed to imply consent, and that the “initiator” is responsible for acquiring consent from his or her partner. It also states that students who are “incapacitated as a result of alcohol” cannot give consent. The policy goes on to define alcohol-related incapacity, describe physical signs of incapacitation, and give role-play examples of violations of each category of sexual misconduct outlined in the policy. There are clear guidelines here for students and administrators. 

Clear definitions of consent and sexual assault are just two of the best practices identified by SAFER as we have reviewed campus sexual assault policies from around the country. In 2007, SAFER launched the first incarnation of our Campus Sexual Assault Policies Database, and over the next two years analyzed 93 policies from a diverse array of schools. We’ve recently released the results of that process in our 2009 Policy Database Report, and we did find some promising trends: 85 percent of the schools represented offered students 24-hour crisis counseling, and almost half of the schools had a full-time staff member dedicated to education and prevention programming. Most schools also allow students to report anonymously and/or confidentially, which encourages reporting. 

However, there are disappointing figures as well. For example, only 4 percent of the 93 schools offered rape survivors emergency contraception and STI and HIV prophylaxis at campus health centers. While most schools have some kind of prevention and education programming, only 15 percent of the schools have made such activities mandatory for students. None of the schools have mandatory primary prevention programs or bystander trainings that focus on changing the social norms that contribute to sexual violence. At just over half the schools are students required to read and sign the sexual assault policy, leaving one to wonder what good can come of a policy that students aren’t aware of.

Though from a small sample, these findings and administrative apathy or lack of awareness that they imply are in line with numbers presented in the Department of Justice’s 2005 report, “Sexual Assault on College Campuses: What Colleges and Universities Are Doing About It.” The DOJ report also highlights serious issues like lack of sexual assault training for security personnel and residence advisors (who are most likely to receive reports of sexual assault), and barriers to student reporting. At over a third of the schools studied, for example, administrators said they thought the school’s alcohol and drug policies “inhibit reporting,” meaning that students are afraid of being punished for alcohol or drug infractions if they were assaulted while intoxicated. But this again goes to show how policy plays an integral role in campus culture surrounding sexual violence: adopting an amnesty policy that guarantees reporting students immunity from drug and alcohol infractions would likely increase students’ comfort with reporting, and send a message that a school is committed to supporting survivors.

The importance of campus sexual assault policies makes them necessary and promising sites for activism. SAFER has been guiding students through the process of policy reform for ten years, and we’ve seen student groups win sweeping policy revisions and add key components to weak policies. We recently partnered with V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, on the Campus Accountability Project (CAP), which we hope will vastly expand the number of students thinking about the issue and challenging their schools to do a better job.  V-Day also has a long history of organizing students to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus.

The CAP invites college students to become advocates by researching their schools’ sexual assault policies and submitting their findings to our V-Day/SAFER Campus Accountability Project Database. This is the newest incarnation of our original database, which was restructured to include a student self-submit form consisting of a series of questions that will help students perform their own policy analysis. When the results are in, we will be able to assess the state of policies across the country and provide clear evidence to students and administrators showing how their schools are performing in the fight against sexual violence. We hope that eventually sexual assault policies will become one of the many aspects of campus culture that are rated and integrated into college ranking systems, applying even more pressure on schools to implement better policies.

Campus sexual violence is a hard issue to process, whether it’s the trauma of sexual assault, the trauma of an inadequate campus response, or simply a general frustration at the lack of justice or change. But there is also room for hope and empowered action. Students can take action with CAP, start a policy reform campaign on their campus, or get involved in their school’s awareness and prevention programming; schools can and hopefully will learn from their and others’ mistakes; and in 20 more years, perhaps we won’t still be pleading to be taken seriously.

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