Tuesday, December 1, 2009

'A Culture of Silence': Sexual Assault on Campus

The Center for Public Integrity released a really compelling report today about sexual assault on college campuses. It both rehashes some well-known statistics -- one in five college women will be the victim of sexual assault and over 95 percent chose not to come forward -- along with some new information about secretive school-run administrative proceedings that are often young women's last hope that their allegations will be considered.

The report starts with an account of a young woman at the University of Virginia:

Three hours into deliberations by the University of Virginia’s Sexual Assault Board, UVA junior Kathryn Russell sat with her mother in a closet-like room in sprawling Peabody Hall. Down the corridor, two professors and two students were deciding her fate. Russell was replaying in her mind, endlessly, details of her allegations of rape when, she remembers, Shamim Sisson, the board chair, stepped into the room and delivered the order: You can’t talk about the verdict to anyone.

That stern admonition was a reminder of the silence Russell had been keeping since, she says, she struggled to break free from a fellow student’s grip in her dorm. That’s the account she gave local authorities, who declined to prosecute. And that’s what, in May 2004, she told the UVA Sexual Assault Board, whose decision she’d considered “my last resort.”

It turns out, Russell's experience isn't uncommon. The reason these proceedings are such a "last resort" is perhaps the most tragic part of the investigation. Prosecutors know that rape is a difficult accusation to make stick, often coming down to he-said-she said scenarios. When the prosecutor passes, the rape victim's often left with the only other option: college administrative proceedings.

Just over half the students interviewed by the Center have reported they unsuccessfully sought criminal charges and instead had to seek justice in closed, school-run administrative proceedings that led either to academic penalties or no punishment at all for their alleged assailants, leaving them feeling betrayed by a process they say has little transparency or accountability. Some of those students, including Russell, said they were ordered to keep quiet about the proceedings and threatened with punishment if they did not. Still other students said administrators discouraged them from pursuing rape complaints. Survey respondents indicated similar problems with the closed procedures on campuses.

It seems that colleges and universities, in an effort to make procedures discreet, are actually discouraging rape victims from coming forward.

What's more, the administrative proceedings often don't really provide a since of justice, since the college or university has limited authority in repercussions, even if the accused is determined to have committed rape. Sometimes the accusations are dealt with in the form of informal mediations. Some argue that mediation is inappropriate in rape cases because rape reaches beyond the scope of interpersonal conflict and lingering intimidation exists between victims and assailants.

The trouble is, that as long as rape cases remain difficult to prosecute, such administrative proceedings on campus may be the last best hope for victims of sexual assault. The challenge is in increasing accountability.

Cross posted.


And Then Life Happens ... said...

For more information visit www.uvavictimsofrape.com

Tufts said...

Thank you for posting about this. I hope that in combination with the site in the other comment and my own (rapedattufts.info), something will finally be done.

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