Campus rape: Don’t rebuild the stonewall

For three decades, we’ve reported on rapes in our midst, the most heinous of crimes. By telling the stories of women who have survived rape and sexual assault, we’ve tried to erase the stigma, and put the shame where it belongs — on the perpetrators.

Institutions where people live in close proximity without the dominant social influence of family life — colleges, prisons, and the military — have particularly high rates of rape. They are institutions that have typically stonewalled over or hidden transgressions.

Here, we’re concerning ourselves with a problem close to home: sexual assault on college campuses where genuine progress has been made in recent years— the University at Albany handled rape cases a dozen years ago very differently than it does today — only to be abruptly stunted last month by a change in federal guidelines.

Back in 2004, we wrote about a rape on the University at Albany campus that was handled in sharp contrast to a rape that same spring in nearby Woodlake Apartments. The Guilderland Police acted responsibly, and immediately released the information about the Woodlake rape to the press, which both alerted residents to danger and increased the chances of catching the suspect.

The university, on the other hand, refused to release information. We wrote then that rape was, tragically, prevalent on college campuses and quoted Bureau of Justice statistics from a 2000 report on the sexual victimization of college women, which stated “There may well be 35 incidents of rape in a given academic year (based on victimization rate of 35.3 per 1,000 college women). For a campus with 10,000 women, this would mean the number of rapes could exceed 350.”

Bureau of Justice statistics at the time also showed that nearly half of college women who were victims of attacks that met the study’s definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape.

“If a woman takes that difficult step and reports an incident only to have it shrouded in silence, what then?” we asked. “There’s less chance of catching the suspect and there’s greater chance she’ll feel marginalized and stigmatized.”

Colleges and universities, of course, had their reasons for the silence; they wanted to protect their reputations. But at what cost? At the cost of producing another generation where women self-blame and feel shame.

We urged then and several times since: “The university should launch a campaign — and we, in the community, should be part of it — to educate students about the prevalence of rape and the need to report it.”

Finally, 10 years later, in 2014, we saw a light at the end of the dark and silent tunnel. The White House Council on Women and Girls released “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” The report took a close look at campus sexual assault, stating 1 in 5 women — 20 percent — had been sexually assaulted while in college. (Prisons and the military also had high rates, the report found.)

One of the report’s saddest statements was on the criminal justice response: “Despite the prevalence of rape and sexual assault, many offenders are neither arrested nor prosecuted.”

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, about 12 percent of the 283,200 annual rapes or sexual assaults between 2005 and 2010 resulted in an arrest.

The report cited causes as complex as police bias and as simple as a shortage of rape kits or a backlog in testing them; the kits collect forensic evidence including the perpetrator’s DNA and can be vital to successful prosecution.

One study cited by the report found that two-thirds of survivors have had their legal cases dismissed, and more than 80 percent of the time, this contradicted her desire to prosecute.

The council’s report also cited the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial-aid programs to report crime on or near their campuses, to develop and disseminate prevention policies, and to ensure victims their basic rights.

Changes on campus began to be made when the Obama administration in 2011 had sent a “Dear Colleague” letter that demanded universities treat sexual assault as a violation of Title IX, the federal legislation meant to guarantee equal treatment for men and women.

The initiative caused many colleges and universities across the country to rethink their approaches to sexual violence.

In 2015, New York State adopted its “Enough is Enough” legislation that made it clear sexual violence is a crime, and students are assured a right to have it investigated and prosecuted as one.

The program sets up a definition of “affirmative consent” so decisions for sexual activity are mutual. It also has an amnesty policy so that students reporting sexual violence are granted immunity for some policy violations like alcohol use.

Further, it requires that a Students’ Bill of Rights be distributed and that administrators, staff, and students be trained. Finally, it requires that data on incidents of sexual violence and their resolution be reported to the State Education Department — no more hushing up such crimes.

In December 2014, the week that the State University of New York adopted a uniform sexual assault prevention and response policy, Aran Mull with the University at Albany Police told us, “We are trying to develop a culture of disclosure. We can’t address the underlying issue unless we have a better picture of the full scope of the problem.”

We could see the difference last October when the University Police immediately released information about a campus rape and, less than 12 hours after the student said she was attacked, a suspect was arrested. The openness of the university was a world away from the closed-mouthed administrators we had questioned a dozen years before. There was, indeed, a culture of disclosure.

But then last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued new guidelines canceling the Obama-era requirement that universities use a lower standard of proof when judging whether an accused student is guilty of sexual assault.

She said universities could abandon that standard, known as “preponderance of evidence” and instead adopt a higher standard — “clear and convincing evidence.”

Also in September, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a review of “Enough is Enough” at over 240 colleges and universities in New York State, finding that just 12 percent were non-compliant. (About 39 percent were compliant and another 49 percent were “significantly compliant” but lacked some services or consistency.)

In other words, progress was being made.

Locally, the University at Albany numbers reported under the Clery Act make this progress clear. In 2014, four rapes were reported on campus. In 2015, the year Enough is Enough legislation was adopted, that number nearly tripled, to 11. The, in 2016, it jumped to 27.

Karen Ziegler, director of the Albany County Crime Victim and Violence Center, told our reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair about another measure of the success of Enough is Enough.

Staff and volunteers from the center accompanied about 350 people, including students, to hospital emergency rooms during the past year, a marked increase over the  225 to 250 emergency-room accompaniments that the center had averaged in recent years.

State laws that protect victims are paying off and are likely behind the increased number of people contacting the center for help, Ziegler said. “I think it is definitely the fact that roommates are hearing about it and encouraging the victims to go. The victims themselves are hearing more about this, and feeling safer and they’re feeling that it’s going to matter to someone. Someone’s going to listen and believe them.”

Ziegler had told The Enterprise in 2010, as we urged on this page that the center’s funding be maintained, that only about 10 percent of women who are raped go to a hospital emergency room and, of those, only about 10 percent press charges.

This week, Ziegler said that DeVos’s rollback “leans more heavily toward protecting the accused and the perpetrators. And it removes the rights, and it takes away the confidence of the victims that they’re going to be believed or that anything will happen.”

DeVos withdrew the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter as well as a 2014 Q&A on sexual misconduct from the United States Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, and issued a new Q&A on campus sexual misconduct, urging “basic fairness” in considering the rights of both accuser and accused.

While no one can object to basic fairness, the current system is skewed against the accuser.

In no other crime does a victim feel shame. In no other crime do prosecutors often say they need to shield a victim from public scrutiny. Remember the report cited by the White House “Call To Action” that found two-thirds of survivors have had their legal cases dismissed and, more than 80 percent of the time, this contradicted her desire to prosecute. And remember, too, that the survivors who go to a hospital after rape are just a small fraction, and then only a small fraction of those press charges.

A year ago, two University at Albany students were charged with felony rape. Last month, each was sentenced to six years’ probation on misdemeanor charges. The Albany County District Attorney’s Office said the slang term “Houdini” is used to describe their illegal acts, which the office described this way: One of the men was engaged in sexual intercourse with a partner when, unbeknownst to the partner, he stopped, and the second man continued in his place.

When The Enterprise asked why the men were allowed to bargain down from a felony to a misdemeanor, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office answered, “There are many reasons prosecutors offer, and judges and defendants accept plea bargains. Pleas prevent the victim from having to testify and be cross-examined in court, they save time and resources of the court and court staff and improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system.”

In what other crime does a victim have to be protected from cross-examination?

Chantelle Cleary, the University at Albany’s assistant vice president for equity and compliance and Title IX coordinator, said that, before DeVos’s announcement, “a fair and balanced process” was essential not only at UAlbany but across New York.

While noting that the university’s process is separate from the criminal justice system’s, Cleary said that she looks at each new report of sexual assault as “a blank slate.”

“I do an investigation, making no assumptions as to whether it’s a false report or it’s true, because every case is different,” Cleary said. “What we do is we take the report and we do a very thorough, very complete investigation that is fair to both parties; we give each party an opportunity to be heard and to present information to be entered in the final adjudication.”

Cleary concluded, “I’m comforted in knowing that we’re in a state where we’re going to continue to make supporting our students, and changing culture, a priority.”

So are we. Nevertheless, directives from the federal government can be chilling. We need to make sure rape victims continue to be believed.

 

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