Commentary Violence

Cornell’s Response to Intimate Partner Death of Student Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Renee Bracey Sherman

If Cornell truly wants to see a reduction in incidents of gender-based violence like the one that ended the life of Shannon Jones on Thanksgiving, the school needs to do more to change the culture that has allowed this sort of violence to persist on campus.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As my fellow Cornell University students and I returned to campus from the Thanksgiving holiday and started our final week of classes, we were heartbroken to learn that one student would not be returning.

Reports of Shannon Jones’ death by strangulation at the hands of her boyfriend, Benjamin Cayea, 32, on Thanksgiving evening spread throughout campus. Jones, 23, hailed by her peers as a bright student, was expected to graduate with a degree in engineering next May.

In the days after her death, my classmates spoke of “the girl who was murdered” with bewilderment and frustration. In classrooms, students could be heard expressing confusion, muttering things like, “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to people like us. It’s not supposed to.” Many of them believed that intimate partner violence wouldn’t enter the ivory tower. But in reality, intimate partner violence is extremely rampant on college campuses. It’s also not getting the attention it deserves nor being dealt with adequately.

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If Cornell truly wants to reduce intimate partner violence and other forms of gender-based violence against its students, the university needs to do more than create another program aimed at addressing violence and sexual abuse; it needs to get the entire campus involved in changing the culture that has allowed this sort of violence to persist. We must have an ongoing conversation about healthy relationships, consent, and intimate partner violence, not only during orientation week, but throughout the school year and students’ entire time at Cornell. The school must also stress how serious gender-based violence is as an issue—attending this campus is not a right; it is a privilege that should be taken away when you assault or rape another human being.

According to police reports, Jones and Cayea had an argument at Jones’ off-campus apartment at approximately 6:30 p.m. In a police interview, Cayea admitted to strangling Jones during the fight, then drove her car to a friend’s apartment and told him, from the parking lot of his apartment, what he had done. Jacob Ives, Cayea’s friend, then called the police, and Cayea was arrested. “She would not stop coming at me, she would not stop yelling. I did it; I choked her,” Cayea reportedly said, according to Ives. When police arrived at Jones’ apartment, she was found without a pulse and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Cayea was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree murder without bail, and his case has been transferred to Tompkins County.

“I feel that Shannon’s unfortunate death has been a surprise to most people in the Cornell community,” said Runjini Raman, Cornell University graduate student and intimate partner violence advocate, told Rewire. “We tell ourselves stories about women in abusive relationships so that they can feel like far away faceless women, that it only manifests in bruises and blood, and that makes us blind, not realizing it happens to someone we may know.”

A 2011 online survey of U.S. college students found that only 8 percent of students believe that intimate partner violence is a major problem on campus, and almost 50 percent believe it is not a problem at all. In fact, intimate partner violence is quite common among college students, though many survivors are reluctant to come forward due to retaliation. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in five students have reported experiencing violence by a current partner, and 32 percent have reported dating violence by a former partner. These rates increase at the intersectionality of class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. For example, Black women are three times more likely to be murdered by their intimate partners than white women, according to an analysis of homicide data conducted by the Violence Policy Center.

According to Cornell’s records provided in compliance with the Clery Act, there were four reported cases of domestic violence and one stalking case last year. 2013 was the first year they began recording such statistics, and of course these figures don’t reflect the number of women who feared coming forward.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and women between the ages of 20 and 24 are most at risk, explained Jessica Li, Cornell University alumni and executive director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP). Li says that while she attended Cornell, a classmate was in an unhealthy relationship and Li recognized the early warning signs of jealousy, possessiveness, and isolation from friends by her abuser. “As friends, we didn’t know where to refer her to on campus, and she didn’t recognize that she was a survivor of dating violence.” A college-wide effort focused on improving students’ knowledge of rape culture and campus resources might reduce this sort of confusion and increase the number of students reporting violent acts.

Recent research also shows an overlap of intimate partner abuse and violence: Among the female respondents to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey who experienced sexual abuse, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner, about “8.7% experienced rape and physical violence, 14.4% experienced physical violence and stalking, and 12.5% experienced all three forms” of intimate partner violence. This abuse has a deep and negative impact on their health, leading to anxiety, depression, physical harm, sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder, and in some cases death. Not to mention, student survivors in particular experience challenges in finishing class assignments or fear being on campus, which makes finishing their education difficult.

Title IX, the federal law that protects students from gender-based violence, guarantees a student’s equal access to education. Title IX outlines steps that colleges must take when investigating gender-based violence on campus, including: providing support to students including changing of a student’s housing, changing class schedules, and offering protection when they’re experiencing stalking, harassment, and other violence by their abuser.

In 2011, the White House issued a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining steps colleges should take to reduce sexual assaults on campus; however, little attention was paid to intimate partner violence. In a article, survivor and campus sexual assault activist Wagatwe Wanjuki explained that sexual assault is getting much-needed attention, though we must not forget to include intimate partner violence as part of the conversation. “Title IX can force schools to provide support for student survivors, but unfortunately the narrative around the law has focused on sexual assault to the detriment of intimate partner violence survivors,” said Wanjuki. “It is crucial for the Department of Education to provide more Dear Colleague letters to further clarify and state what schools need to do to help the abused.”

Cornell University, like other schools, has put many of the Dear Colleague letter recommendations in place to reduce gender-based violence on campus. “We have zero tolerance for intimate partner violence in any form,” said Mary Opperman, Cornell University’s vice president for human resources, in an email to Rewire. “In 2013, we established the Council on Sexual Violence Prevention to develop and implement new programs, and the group is currently developing an action plan to incorporate new educational programs, support services, reporting mechanisms, and data collection.”

But are these individual programs enough to ignite a campus-wide culture change discussion? Some students say no. Campus organizers have identified gender-based violence as a key issue that they would like the school’s first female president, Elizabeth Garrett, to tackle in her incoming administration. President-elect Garrett was instrumental in changing the sexual assault policies at the University of Southern California and passing California’s affirmative consent or “yes means yes” law.

The lack of discussion around Jones’ murder has left students feeling frustrated with the school and larger Ithaca community, especially in light of a recent article about what a “great” guy her killer is. “I feel disappointed and wish that more people saw this act of violence within the larger context of domestic abuse and violence against women,” said Cornell graduate student and social justice activist Johanna Zussman-Dobbins. “Refusing to do so is a way that the university and the community side steps accountability on these issues.”

During her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, Zussman-Dobbins says she served as a panelist for an intimate partner case while working on campus. “One summer they really needed a student to come sit on the panel,” she said. The case she heard was one that had already been postponed several times to accommodate the accused’s schedule and made her question Cornell’s commitment to survivors. “In my opinion, postponing the trial sent the message to me as a young undergraduate that Cornell valued the future of this man more than the future and safety of this young woman.”

When a report of intimate partner violence is filed, both students attend a hearing that consists of faculty and several student panelists who hear the case. “We think that’s a huge benefit for both parties,” explained Mary Beth Grant, judicial administrator at a recent campus event. “We don’t force students to file a report … he or she can choose which avenue they want to pursue.” Grant outlined that students could choose to file reports with Cornell, the local police, or both, and that investigations would include hearing from witnesses and sifting through texts, social media, and other documentation for evidence. Should either party not agree with the panel’s decision, they are able to appeal the decision.

Even though Cornell’s reporting process exists to support students claiming they have experienced gender-based violence, the university needs to improve how it talks about intimate partner violence with students. In class, for example, Raman, who advocates for bystander awareness and campus-wide discussion of violence against women, said the issue was often addressed in “a textbook manner” without any empathy for students experiencing violence. “The fact that we still discuss it so nonchalantly … is not OK.”

As a program at Yale University shows, educating bystanders is key to changing the conversation around intimate partner violence on campus. In 2013, Yale was in the news for refusing to expel several students found guilty of “nonconsensual sex.” The Ivy League school has publicly begun to clean up its act after being fined $155,000 by the Department of Education for failing to report gender-based violence crimes in keeping with the Clery Act. “We worked through this with a series of cases dealing with intimate partner violence and using them to enhance the wording, descriptions, and training materials for incoming and current students,” said Vanessa Lamers, who served on the Yale University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and in the Marion County Oregon District Attorney’s Office on Sexual Assault Victim Assistance.

“One of the trainings I find most helpful with college students, especially with male athletes and university fraternities, is masculinities and the bystander approach … [educating men about how the] pressures to appear masculine, strong, and in control push this status quo of violence,” she said. “Training men to be aware of these pushes in their conscious and subconscious is a great way to assist young men be leaders in college.”

Li of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project agrees that educating bystanders is an important strategy when reducing intimate partner violence. Too often, friends, classmates, and family members aren’t aware of the warning signs, and schools could do a better job of holding campus-wide discussions of intimate partner violence and teaching students to intervene when a peer is in need of support. She says some of the warning signs to look out for are abusers checking cell phones and emails without permission, constant texting to check up on the individual, extreme jealousy, isolation from family and friends, pressuring someone to have sex, possessiveness and false accusations, putting someone down constantly, physical violence, and stalking.

Cornell University has a strong presence of fraternities on campus and has programs, such as Wingman 101, targeting men in addressing gender-based violence; however, at a recent campus event titled “State of Sexual Assault at Cornell University,” the administrative staff who spoke about the school’s sexual assault investigative process and student rights under Title IX couldn’t identify any of the programs. If the university’s chief investigator has to rely on audience members to explain what programs are available on campus, that doesn’t bode well for student confidence in the administration.

Similar to other schools, Cornell has set up websites and counseling to support survivors on campus, but they require that the survivors or their peers seek out the resources; students feel the university isn’t as proactive as it could be.

In the wake of Jones’ death, students hope Cornell will not squander this moment and finally begin to shed light on the epidemic that is campus intimate partner violence. “I hope that Cornell takes this horrible crime as a call to arms and puts serious academic and professional thought into creating a safer culture on campus,” said Lamers. Shifting the culture, educating bystanders, and supporting survivors are the only ways we will achieve campuses free of gender-based violence.

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