Analysis Violence

As White House Investigates Campus Sexual Assault, Another College Under Fire for Mishandling Rape Case

Angus Johnston

Sunday's New York Times report on a 2013 incident at Hobart and William Smith Colleges comes at a time when the failure of U.S. higher education to address campus rape is coming under high scrutiny.

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

The latest evidence that many U.S. colleges are badly bungling their responsibility to effectively investigate and address sexual assault on campus came Sunday in the form of a lengthy New York Times report on a 2013 incident at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York.

In that incident, a student named Anna (she gave the Times permission to use her first name) who was two weeks into her first semester on campus, reported she was sexually assaulted twice in one night by members of the college football team. Despite witness testimony and physical evidence, however, the college took just ten days to exonerate all three of the accused. Worse, the process by which it did so was slapdash, biased, and riddled with error.

The Times investigation of Hobart and William Smith comes at a time when the failure of U.S. higher education to address campus rape is coming under high scrutiny. In January of this year, President Obama created a Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and in April that task force released its first report, along with resources aimed at strengthening colleges’ sexual assault policies.

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The standards for sexual assault investigation promulgated by the task force so far are preliminary and partial, but even these initial materials make clear that Hobart and William Smith’s policies were deficient in the most basic ways.

The task force’s Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies, for instance, says such policies should be organized in a “clear, logical” way, and offers no-contact orders as an example of the “immediate steps” colleges should use to “protect complainants.” At Hobart and William Smith, however, the disciplinary panel overseeing Anna’s complaint apparently misread its own policies when advising her on appeals procedure and took five months to rule on her complaint that one of her attackers had violated its no-contact order.

Even more disturbing than these lapses, however, are the ways in which Hobart and William Smith’s defective procedures are in compliance with current federal regulations. In this regard, three concerns stand out: denial of counsel, inadequacy of training, and interference with ongoing investigations.

The federal government regulates campus sexual assault adjudications in a variety of ways. Campuses are required, for instance, to inform students of their right to make a complaint to law enforcement, and to use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in resolving all complaints that are addressed on campus. No federal law or regulation, however, gives students the right to have a lawyer, counselor, or other adviser present during their appearances before such judicial bodies.

At Hobart and William Smith, both Anna and the men in the case were permitted to bring an “adviser” with them when they testified before the committee, but in accordance with college rules those “advisers” were forbidden to speak at any time. As a result, Anna had no one present to assist her when members of the committee misrepresented witness statements to her detriment, asked her inappropriate questions about her behavior on the night in question, or invited her to speculate about events that transpired while she was blacked out due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Federal law requires that members of campus judicial boards such as Anna’s be trained in adjudicating sexual assault complaints, and Hobart and William Smith says the members of its panel receive “significant, multi-day trainings conducted by national experts.” Transcripts of Anna’s hearing obtained by the Times, however, reveal an astonishing lack of competence. In addition to the lapses discussed above, members of the panel interrupted Anna and each other at crucial, sensitive points in her testimony; on two separate occasions, members of the panel interrupted her description of the sexual assault itself to initiate questioning about unrelated, subsidiary issues.

The panel members’ incompetence was not restricted to the tone or content of their questioning. They held the hearing before Anna’s rape kit had been processed, and only one of the panel’s three members reviewed the medical report completed on the night of the incident—a report that indicated that Anna had been the victim of sexual assault. They failed to confront the alleged assailants about fundamental contradictions in their statements to college officials. They pressed Anna to explain her initial reluctance to submit to a rape kit, apparently unaware of the physical and emotional trauma involved in such an examination. One even asked whether a witness who had seen her being sexually violated might have mistaken close dancing for sex—until Anna reminded the questioner that the witness had described seeing the assailant’s pants around his ankles.

That the members of the panel were not expert in addressing sexual assault complaints is not surprising. Such panels at Hobart and William Smith are staffed by volunteer faculty and staff members, and Anna’s complaint was heard by a human resources administrator, a junior faculty member from the psychology department, and the director of the campus bookstore.

A third egregious lapse in procedure at the school concerned the football team. All three of Anna’s alleged assailants were members of the team, and two days after the initial incident the coach of the team brought the three together for a locker room meeting with himself, two team captains, and a teammate who claimed to have witnessed one of the assaults. Two days after that meeting, one of the accused recanted his initial statement to the college, bringing it more in line with the evidence that had been gathered.

Shockingly, none of this—the refusal of counsel or assistance to complainant and accused, the lax training and shoddy questioning by the panel, the coach’s apparent interference with an ongoing investigation—violates federal law or regulation as currently written. But that may be about to change.

In its April task force report, the Obama administration offered a roadmap of its future plans. This September, the Department of Justice will be launching a new training program for campus officials tasked with investigating and adjudicating sexual assault complaints, and in October the department will begin a review of standards for such investigations. It is likely that these processes, and others underway within the administration, will lead to new legislation and regulation in the future.

The content of such laws and regulations will be absolutely essential to protecting the rights of students who are victimized by sexual assault on campus, as well as those who are accused of such crimes. But mere compliance with law and regulation should never be seen as disposing of a college’s obligations to its students.

There is, of course, intense debate on when, how, and whether responsibility for addressing campus sexual assault should be taken out of the hands of the college and given to police and prosecutors. Whatever one’s position on that question, however, the college will always have a vital role to play in the process. When an incident is brought to the police there will always be a delay—often a lengthy one—in resolving the case, and during that time there will be decisions to be made about what restrictions should be placed on an alleged perpetrator. After a conviction, if a jail sentence is not imposed, the college will have to decide what disciplinary action to take, and after an acquittal the college will have to determine how to proceed.

Colleges will always be involved in investigating and adjudicating sexual assault complaints, as they must. And while the federal government—and the states, and university governance bodies—can and should do more to set and enforce high standards for such processes, the ultimate obligation for meeting them rests with the campus, and with the individual faculty, staff, and students tasked with the responsibility of putting them into action.

News Politics

To Avoid Campus Sexual Assault, Kasich Suggests, Don’t Go to Parties With a Lot of Alcohol

Ally Boguhn

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman at a town hall event in New York who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

At a town hall event in New York, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

“Being that I am a young female college student, what are you going to do in office as president to help me feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape?” the first-year student at St. Lawrence University asked the Republican presidential candidate on Friday.

Kasich replied that in Ohio, “we think that when you enroll you ought to absolutely know” how to report sexual harassment “or whatever” confidentially, access a rape kit, and “pursue justice after you’ve had some time to reflect on it all.” Adding that similar rules should be applied nationwide, he continued that he has “two 16-year-old daughters, and I don’t even like to think about it.”

“It’s sad, but it’s something that I have to worry about,” the student noted.

“I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK? Don’t do that,” Kasich responded.

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After the town hall, Kasich’s campaign tweeted“Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”

Victims needs [sic] to know we’re doing everything we can to have their backs, and that’s happening in Ohio under John Kasich’s leadership,” said another tweet from the campaign.

However, Kasich’s comments had already begun to garner criticism from those who felt he was placing the responsibility for stopping sexual violence on the victims.

“Let me say this simply, so that the governor can understand—rape victims are not responsible for rape. It’s on all of us—men and women—to address campus sexual assault,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said in a statementaccording to Cincinnati.com.

Others argued that Kasich’s statement was reflective of his past record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

“John Kasich’s plan for combating sexual assault as president is to blame women who go to parties. John Kasich’s pattern of dismissing the concerns of women is disturbing enough,” said Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), in a statement. PPAF has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency. 

“As Governor, John Kasich has implemented policies that reflect his disregard for women, enacting 18 measures that restrict women’s access to reproductive health care while nearly half the abortion providers in his state closed their doors. He eliminated domestic violence prevention and a healthy moms and healthy babies program, simply because they were provided by Planned Parenthood. A John Kasich presidency would punish women. We can’t let his dangerous agenda into the White House,” continued Laguens.

As ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein explained, not only did Kasich’s so-called advice seem to blame the victim, it “also perpetuates the disproved myth that there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and rape. In fact, incidents of rape have been declining since 1979, while binge drinking has been steadily rising during the same time period. While alcohol is present in about half of all sexual assaults, it’s also present in about that same percentage of all violent crimes.” 

At least one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus, according to a September 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities.

Kasich similarly pitched the merits of confidential reporting of campus sexual violence during a February town hall event hosted by CNN, where he promised, if elected, to “use a bully pulpit” to “speak out” on the topic and push “legislatures to begin to pay attention to these issues.”

The Ohio governor’s state budget for fiscal year 2016 also included $2 million to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault. In October, the Ohio Department of Higher Education launched an initiative to “prevent and better respond to incidents of sexual violence” on all of the state’s college campuses using the money allocated by the budget.

However, Kasich’s 2013 budget contained a “gag rule” provision blocking funding for rape crisis centers that provide information about abortion. Among the other anti-choice provisions included in the budget was a mandate on ultrasounds for abortions and the reallocation of Planned Parenthood funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which regularly lie to patients in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Culture & Conversation Media

What #CoverWithConsent Can Teach Reporters About Ending Rape Culture

Andy Kopsa

As reporters and members of the media, reaching out to possible victims of rape for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling.

Last year, a former communications staffer for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon found the details of her rape case made public in a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The piece, written by then-staffer Virginia Young, used the woman’s police report, filed after her assault and filled with errors and inconsistencies, in an attempt to smear a former politician.  

The paper named the subject, Brittany Burke, without her consent. It gave her no chance to talk off the record and ran her photo side-by-side with that of the politician in question. That was almost a year ago. And yet in March, the Post-Dispatch ran an editorial that doubled down on its actions. The paper’s editorial board renamed Burke, denying the Post-Dispatch‘s piece was an assault story but rather one about the “party atmosphere” in the state capitol. The editors have claimed naming Burke in the first place was vital to the public interest. It wasn’t.

I use Burke’s name because she gave me consent to use her name and to tell her side of this story—something the Post-Dispatch didn’t do.  

Burke’s outing inspired a wave of backlash and critique. Using her name and her assault report wasn’t just yellow journalism; it appeared to be a calculated and craven act to sell papers and drive clicks. Last month, partially inspired by Burke’s situation, the Missouri house held hearings on a bill that would require documents like police reports to redact the personal information of trauma victims prior to the document being released to the public. Missouri law currently restricts release of records if there is a danger posed to the subject by doing so. While concerns over restricting access to public records is valid—transparency in the world of journalism is paramount—it is clear that in certain cases, like those of rape and other traumas, further rules need to be established.  

The Post-Dispatch’s editorial was in response to this bill, which passed out of committee and is currently awaiting full floor debate; Burke testified in its favor. 

But Burke’s story stretches beyond Missouri—it can act as a lesson for reporters and members of the media in how to approach stories about victims of trauma.

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With that in mind, I stepped out of my reporter role briefly last year and launched an online petition demanding the Post-Dispatch issue an apology to Burke. Beyond the apology, the petition called on the paper to immediately implement transparent standards of dealing with potential victims of sexual assault and to adopt simple training that would create a trauma-informed newsroom. The petition was launched with the support of Women, Action, and the Media! (WAM!) under the hashtag #CoverWithConsent, referencing the broader need for reporters to obtain consent from possible victims before naming them, and to, whenever feasible and appropriate, contact them to get their sides of the story.

Newspapers aren’t legally bound to withhold the name of a possible rape victim, though it is common practice to do so. But it wasn’t just Burke’s name that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed. The story included details that suggested Burke was an unreliable witness to her own assault and that effectively put Burke’s personal and professional life in danger.

At the time of Burke’s assault, she had started her own public relations and communications company and many of her clients were in government-adjacent support fields, so she spent a lot of time in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The night of the incident, Burke went out for dinner and drinks with some friends. She ended up at a bar frequented by government officials, politicians, and lobbyists. She bought rounds of drinks. The next thing she remembers is showing up at a former fling’s apartment matted with blood and confused. Not able to recall what happened, she decided she needed to go to the hospital. “I feel like I had sex,” she says she told the nurse, along with the fact that she was a woman in politics and required discretion in the case.

She filed a police report. “I don’t know if I was raped,” she told the officer, meaning that she truly did not remember what happened to her that night. According to the report, the officer asked Burke, who was crying, that if the lab test from the hospital came back with a lead, what she would like to have happen to someone who assaulted her. Burke replied, the report said, “I want him to burn in hell.”

Young, now retired from the Post-Dispatch, based much of her story on the police report without giving Burke the opportunity to talk off the record about them or correct anything about the details. For example, police initially investigated Burke’s complaint under the outdated statute of “forcible rape.” Under current law, however, if a person is unable to consent to sex for any reason, that is rape in Missouri. Young did not note this inconsistency, simply writing that the case had been dropped.

Young also detailed Burke’s bar tab, careful to catalog what Burke drank and bought right down to the last “Jagerbomb.” But the real push of the story was that Burke had had an affair with a married, former speaker of the Missouri house. That was revealed in the police report: His apartment is where she ended up the morning after the assault. He was otherwise not connected with the incident.

As reporters, it is our job to relay facts of a story that arm readers with information to come to their own conclusions. Compassion is not something typically associated with reporters, and in most cases we must be dispassionate to remain as unbiased as possible. But as a reporter who works with victims of trauma, the way I relay a person’s story is just as critical as making sure the facts are correct. In fact, the first often leads to the second.

After the story broke in the Post-Dispatch, I dug further into the story and filed my own account of what happened to Burke with the Riverfront Times, a regional independent weekly based in St. Louis. I did this in collaboration with Burke, meaning: I talked with her. I listened. She shared information with me on background that led me to seek further sources and lines of inquiry. Talking with Burke off the record led to a robust accounting of what happened to her that night. Listening to her and acknowledging trauma built trust. And trust led to Burke sharing the jarring findings from medical records that included a sexual assault nurse examiner finding suspected semen and vaginal abrasions “consistent with assault.” 

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also took issue with the Post-Dispatch’s handling of the story. In an article that was published after the Riverfront Times piece, Deron Lee argued that if the Post-Dispatch had allowed Burke to speak off the record instead of asking for an on-the-record comment, it may have convinced the paper to not run the article as it was published. “Insisting that sources and subjects be on the record is a way to hold accountable people who wield power. Talking to someone who is a possible sexual-assault victim presents a different set of considerations,” Lee wrote.

Reaching out to Burke—or any possible victim of rape—for consent to cover their story leads to better, more accurate storytelling. Moreover, getting consent prior to telling an apparent victim’s story could go a long way in punching back at the pervasive rape culture perpetuated all too often by the media. For example, in response to backlash to the story, Christopher Ave, Young’s editor on the piece, erroneously said in an interview“Not only was there no evidence of a sexual assault, no one was alleging a sexual [assault], the woman was not alleging a sexual assault.”

Rather than allowing Burke to tell her own story, Ave, Young, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board were her judge and jury—deciding she had not been assaulted based on an incomplete police report, no background from the victim, and no mention of physical evidence.

This, said Soraya Chemaly, feminist media critic, author, and director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, who coined the #CoverWithConsent hashtag, is an example of how the media puts rape victims on trial—something we seldom do with any other crime.

“Consent is such a vital issue,” said Chemaly in a phone interview. She pointed me to a recent study, released in December 2015 by the Women’s Media Center, which examined coverage of campus rape and sexualized violence at 12 major print outlets. Over the course of a year, it revealed that 55 percent of stories about sexual assault were covered by men and only 31 percent were covered by women. The gender divide goes deeper: Within those stories, 48 percent contained quotes from men while women made only 32 percent of quotes used.  

#CoverWithConsent is an effort to hold the establishment we are a part of accountable. The petition itself is less about getting an apology for Burke—she knows that will likely never happen. Rather, it is about how newsrooms should have reporters who are trained in dealing with possible victims of trauma, including sexual assault. Editorial standards should take victims’ needs into consideration, such as the option to speak on background. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, for a reporter working with a survivor of sexual assault, it is essential to treat their experience with compassion and sensitivity, to tell a subject’s whole story, and “to take special care, if they are to avoid compounding their interviewees’ distress.”

“The #CoverWithConsent campaign holds media accountable for victim-blaming, shaming, and outing sexual assault survivors. The campaign condemns acts of insensitive and irresponsible journalism that results in shaming crime victims. It also illuminates the reality that this kind of unethical reporting perpetuates rape culture by re-victimizing survivors in the court of public opinion,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of WAM!, in an interview.

The original story nearly destroyed Burke. Her livelihood as a consultant was over—some clients terminated contracts or didn’t renew contracts, she said, specifically because of the Post-Dispatch story. Her personal information and address was posted online, and she faced an onslaught of harassing tweets and Facebook messages. When I approached Burke about signing onto the petition officially, she said yes. Looking back, she told me, she had nothing left to lose.

With her anonymity gone, Burke was thrust into a role she never would have imagined: that of a women’s and victim’s right advocate. The last year has been incredibly difficult for her and she still struggles. She has been asked to speak at a local university about her experience as a woman in public relations and politics and about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch story and its aftermath. She told me she never thought she would be speaking to college classes about the shaming of a rape victim, let alone that the victim would be her.  

But, she said, she doesn’t have a choice. “I have to make sure I do whatever I can to make sure this never happens to any woman again.”

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