Emma Sulkowicz, a former student at Columbia University, caught the nation’s attention in 2014 when she began carrying her mattress everywhere she went on campus.
The act was part of her senior performance art piece entitled “Carry That Weight” in which she stated that she would carry around a dorm mattress until the student that raped her in a Columbia dorm room was expelled. Sulkowicz’s performance brought recognition to the issue of sexual assault and re-ignited the debate surrounding colleges and their handling of sexual violence on their campuses.
Sulkowicz is certainly not the only student to take a university to task for their sexual assault policy. In fact, many survivors such as Beckett Brennan and the women who recently filed claims against the justice department regarding their schools, have come forward and accused universities of being lax in their handling of sexual violence on campus. Lawmakers even have legislation aimed at addressing the issue.
Many administrators believe that colleges respond appropriately when they are informed of a sexual assault, however, alarming statistics prove that colleges need to reevaluate the way they handle sexual assault cases.
“Instances of sexual assault are hardly rare on university campuses. In fact, between 20% and 25% of women are sexually assaulted over the course of a college career,” said Amanda Lindamood, director of training and technical assistance at the DC Rape Crisis Center.
Furthermore, the Justice Department estimates that less than 5% of assaults are reported to law enforcement. Perhaps the most worrying statistic is that in 80-90% of these cases, the victims know their attacker. Judging from these statistics, sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses. The main reason for this is that colleges do not treat sexual assault charges with the proper severity.
In many cases of campus rape, the victim chooses to report the offense to the college’s disciplinary board rather than the police. These disciplinary boards are not equipped to deal with sexual assault charges. At Indiana University, one of the schools that is currently being investigated by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, the head of the Office of Student Ethics says that their committee is “not the same as a court of law.”
Unlike criminal courts, colleges cannot enforce rape statutes; they can only enforce conduct codes.
“Critics say the college system is ill equipped to handle sexual assault cases. Schools may designate an ’investigator’ to assess a complaint’s merit. But they cannot subpoena records and witnesses to sort out conflicting testimony.”
Furthermore, universities are notorious for letting perpetrators off easy.
“We’ve seen this several times,” said Denise Taylor, Crisis Services Manager at the Rape Crisis Center, “A survivor will come in, having reported the offense to a disciplinary committee, and yet her attacker will escape with a slap on the wrist or no punishment at all.”
The Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women extends grants to schools to combat on-campus violence against women. According to statistics reported to the office, 75-90% of total disciplinary actions taken amounted to minor sanctions such as reprimands, counseling and suspension. That means that a perpetrator could get suspended for one semester for a crime that would carry up to 20 years in prison in the “real world”. The report also shows that colleges rarely expel students in these cases even though the Justice Department encourages its grant recipients to train disciplinary committees to dole out “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion.”
College administrators often say that these proceedings are about education, not punishment.
“We’d like to think that we can always educate and hold accountable the student,” said Pamela Freeman, associate dean of students at Indiana University.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that a college campus can rehabilitate a sex offender… so why are we even taking that chance?” The repercussions of the current disciplinary standard are that the victims have their lives turned upside down, are often harassed, and frequently drop out of school, while their attackers remain on campus and graduate. This is the kind of treatment that greatly compounds the trauma of the attack,” he said.
“Many victims liken it to being raped a second time,” said Lindamood.
“I find that absolutely outrageous,” said Colby Bruno, an attorney at the Victim Rights Center in Boston. “I don’t understand in what crazy universe rape or sexual assault doesn’t warrant expulsion.”
Furthermore, many of these incidents are more than what many administrators would call a “miscommunication among two drunk students.”
Clinical psychologist David Lisak has researched what he calls the “undetected rapists” on campuses. Lisak’s research suggests that over half of these student rapists are repeat offenders who rape an average of six times.
Bruno says, “Schools that overlook this paradigm are failing their female students… Giving someone a deferred suspension is like giving someone carte blanche to do it again.”
Schools need to focus on ways to improve their disciplinary committees to be better prepared to hand down harsher punishments. Any student who is found guilty of sexual assault should be expelled.
The most important thing that schools can do to reduce the problem of sexual assault is to educate their students. Sexual assault training is virtually nonexistent for the majority of the student body on many campuses.
A report by the National Institute of Justice stated that of 2,500 schools surveyed, only about 40% offered any sexual assault training and what training is available is usually limited to resident assistants and student security officers.
Some schools surveyed did offer safety-related educational programs that included sexual assault but less than a third of those schools addressed acquaintance rape prevention. This is extremely problematic as most victims are attacked by someone they know. Schools also need to address the issue of consent. In a survey of high school students conducted by the New York State Coalition of Sexual Assault, 56% of girls and 76% of boys, many of whom were probably incoming college freshman, believed forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances. Furthermore, 48.8% of college women surveyed in the same study who were victims of attacks that met the study’s definition of rape did not consider what happened to them to be rape. Taking these statistics into consideration, it’s easy to see how students could be confused when it comes to what consent means. That’s why more education is needed.
The National Institute of Justice cited eight schools that exhibit “promising practices” in preventing sexual assault. Among these practices were the following:
- The school has a campus sexual assault program which includes:
- Comprehensive education about rape myths
- Common circumstances under which the crime occurs
- Prevention strategies
- Rape trauma responses and the healing process
- The school has a clearly defined sexual assault policy which:
- Defines all forms of sexual misconduct
- Describes circumstances in which sexual assault most commonly occurs
- Advises what to do if the student is sexually assaulted
- Lists resources available on campus and in the local community
- Provides for and lists available reporting options
- States the school’s sanctions for violating sexual misconduct policy
- Provides and official statement noting the separate actions available to the victim
Putting measures like these in place are paramount to ending the epidemic of on campus rape.
Many school administrators say they are handling sexual assault appropriately and that the punishments they dole out fit the crime but the federal government would disagree. The Obama administration has formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to deal with these problems. Recently, the Task Force placed 55 schools under investigation for Title IX violations. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding.
“Colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses,” said Vice President Biden “We need to provide survivors with more support and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice and we need colleges and universities to step up.”
Now that the federal government has stepped in to do what many schools can’t (or won’t), it seems these colleges and universities may finally make some progress towards ending rampant sexual assault on their campuses.
“We need stricter punishments, we need comprehensive education, we need to take these crimes seriously,” said Taylor.
Rape on college campuses is a serious problem affecting far too many women. Letting perpetrators off with slaps on the wrist only serves to excuse their deplorable actions. Universities must make take action to change their disciplinary processes as well as their policies regarding sexual assault. Only then can this problem be solved.