Sexual Assault Survivors Are Asking: Campus or Courtroom?

A debate about whether victims and the accused are better served by schools' disciplinary procedures or by the criminal justice system arises.

Activist Tessa Ormenyi on the Stanford University campus. (Photo: Michael Short)

Dec 14, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When Stanford University released its campus climate survey in October, the school reported that an average of 1.9 percent of students had been sexually assaulted on campus during their time there. Amid numerous high-profile sexual violence cases on college campuses across the country in the past few years, Stanford’s numbers look good at first glance—too good, and too low, according to student activists.

“The report skewed and obscured the numbers to hide the prevalence of sexual assault on campus,” Tessa Ormenyi, an activist and a 2015 Stanford graduate, told TakePart. Because male students experience sexual violence at a much lower rate than do women, by averaging the responses from all students, the survey dragged down and obfuscated the real rate of sexual violence that female students experience, Ormenyi says.

The reality is that 4.7 percent of undergraduate women respondents reported sexual assault, and another 32.9 percent reported having been subject to “sexual misconduct”—a separate category the university created to encompass all nonconsensual sexual contact, including oral sex, penetration with a foreign object, or groping. Those acts fall outside the scope of California’s criminal rape and sexual offense statutes, which the survey’s designers used to define assault. Victims who experienced repeated attacks were only counted once.

FULL COVERAGE: How 2015 Changed the Future

The Stanford study is just one example of the many factors that make it difficult to quantify the scope of the sexual violence problem on college campuses. While awareness of the issue rose to the forefront in 2015, the hard work of assessing the true scale of the problem has posed challenges for those looking to prescribe a cure. Differing definitions of assault, underreporting by survivors of violence who fear stigmatization, and reluctance by college administrators to accurately measure a number that could damage their reputation all play into the challenge of collecting data that accurately illustrates the problem. Even when the numbers come together, colleges then face the next hurdle: How should these complex and sensitive accusations be addressed, and how can administrators protect the rights of both the accused and the survivor?

Tessa Ormenyi. (Photo: Michael Short)

Activists all over the country organized in 2015 to hold administrations accountable for addressing reports of sexual assault and making campuses safer. As colleges and universities worked to find the best way to respond to reports, a new survey from the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit association of research universities, reported that nearly one in four female undergraduate students had experienced sexual assault since enrolling in college. By mid-July, more than 100 colleges were under investigation by the Department of Education for alleged mishandling of student reports of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, concern for the rights of the accused during campus adjudication processes remained central for an opposing camp, which pushes for reports of sexual misconduct and assault occurring on campus to be relayed directly to law enforcement.

New York state will try a third way that could yield results in 2016 and beyond: Legislation Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed in July allots $4.5 million for a new police unit that will attempt to address the concerns of both sides—those who want school officials to do a better job of addressing sexual violence and those who want to see all such matters referred to the police. Senior investigators in what's being referred to as the sexual assault victims unit will be trained to handle and investigate sexual assault cases and to support survivors on campus, and will be assigned to troops statewide. The unit will offer forensic services to college campus police, and will offer training to college campus communities, according to the new law, called “Enough Is Enough.” (As of early December, the new unit was still in its nascent phases and had not taken on any cases, a state police spokesperson told TakePart.)

We consistently hear that if survivors were required to report to police, most of them would choose not to report al all.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director, Know Your IX

Survivors’ advocates are not optimistic, however, citing the low rates of reporting rape by nonstudents, and of convictions in cases that are reported. Just 26 percent of sexual assaults and 36 percent of rapes are reported to police, according to the National Institute of Justice. Research shows that survivors of sexual violence do not report their experiences for a variety of reasons: embarrassment, fear of stigmatization, and a low degree of confidence in a favorable outcome. Federally funded research found an average of just 14 to 18 percent of sexual assault cases are prosecuted, and 18 percent of incidents reported to police result in a conviction.

Even as schools have been failing at protecting female students, says Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist who has extensively researched and spoken about campus sexual assault, “The experts in the criminal justice system frankly often aren’t well equipped to deal with this either. We already know how hostile those spaces can be for people who go and report.”

But it’s equally clear that many colleges are ignoring reports of sexual assault or letting assailants off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. In response, the federal Safe Campus Act, introduced in Congress in July, takes the adjudication process out of schools’ hands altogether and requires alleged victims to go through the traditional channels of the criminal justice system. The bill is under review by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“I don’t see any evidence that campuses are doing a good job or will do a good job at handling these cases,” Jeannie Suk, a professor of criminal law at Harvard University, says. “If you treat sexual crimes differently than other serious crimes, it sends a message that these crimes are not as important. Just as we would for any other serious felony, we should involve the police.” While Suk does not support eliminating universities’ power to investigate and punish sex crimes, she believes campus adjudication systems are significantly less effective than the criminal justice system.

But many in the survivor-focused advocacy community say requiring schools to share reports of campus sexual assault with police, as the proposed federal bill does, would make the problem even worse.

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr (right) supporting activist Emma Sulkowicz at a 'Carry That Weight' protest. (Photo: Jo Chiang/Facebook)

“We consistently hear that if survivors were required to report to police, most of them would choose not to report at all,” says Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director of the survivor advocacy organization Know Your IX, which focuses on holding schools accountable under the law that requires them to protect women and minorities from civil rights violations, known as Title IX.

Survivor-focused groups are unilaterally opposed to the Safe Campus Act. Know Your IX instead supports a bill introduced in June by Democratic Reps. Jackie Speier of California and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, which would amend the Higher Education Act to allow students to sue their college or university if they violate the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to publish crime statistics and annual security reports. It would also provide $5 million in additional funding to the Education Department to enforce it and Title IX.

In early November, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women organized more than 200 such groups to sign on to a letter to all members of the House of Representatives, arguing that options for survivors should be expanded, rather than limited, to encourage reporting.

Underreporting is unavoidable no matter who handles campus sexual assault cases, according to Suk. “I do not believe these little things around the edges like whether or not the police are going to be called are the things that keep people from reporting,” she says. “There’s underreporting for many crimes.”

But according to Ridolfi-Starr, survivors who work with Know Your IX have explicitly expressed discomfort at the idea of reporting to law enforcement—particularly women of color, LGTB students, and undocumented students.

Ormenyi, Chemaly, and Ridolfi-Starr all say they can’t point to a single campus that meets all of the best practices they’d like to see.

“When thinking about who’s doing this best, we need to see longevity, and in many places, we don’t have it,” says Ormenyi.

As campuses fumble in the nascent stages of adopting new adjudication processes or coming to resolutions with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights as a result of their investigations, students are left waiting for a solution. The New York special police unit aims to be that solution, but for now, says Chemaly, “there is nowhere [for survivors] to go. The same problems that exist in courtrooms and in the criminal justice system exist on campuses too.”