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A growing number of female students are filing complaints against their colleges and universities, seeking to reform how their institutions deal with sexual violence by fellow students.
Women at Occidental College and the University of Southern California claim that their universities fail to meet federal Title IX standards for preventing and responding to sexual assault on campus.
At Occidental, one victim was shocked to learn that after she graduated, her attacker, who’d admitted to assaulting another student, was allowed back to school after writing a book report about sexual assault.
Students at Swarthmore, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Yale and UC Berkeley have filed similar complaints.
Their inspiration? The Amherst College student who came forward in the pages of Amherst’s student newspaper last year with her story of how a fellow dorm mate raped her.
The student also recounted how Amherst dissuaded her from getting help, denied her a room change, involuntarily committed her to a psych ward and wouldn’t let her study abroad.
Her attacker graduated with honors.
Biddy Martin has been the president of Amherst College for two years. She learned about the student’s rape and the subsequent handling of her case in the Amherst student newspaper.
“I felt appalled, first of all by what happened to her, and appalled that the college hadn’t handled it better,” Martin told Here & Now. “In my first year, I had learned from students that they felt policies, procedures and the level of focus on sexual misconduct, assault and rape were inadequate, and so we had begin to initiate changes even before last fall when Angie’s account appeared. When I learned of what had occurred, I was determined that we should be open about where we had responsibility for having failed to respond appropriately.”
Studies show that one in four college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault. Research also suggests that over 90 percent of college sexual assaults are committed by serial rapists.
However, for a variety of complicated reasons, many women do not come forward.
Part of this has to do with a lack of understanding of what constitutes rape or sexual assault, says John Lauerman, a reporter for Bloomberg News who has reported on the group of students at Occidental College.
“I’ve talked with at least a dozen women who have been sexually assaulted,” Lauerman said. “There’s a great deal of shame that’s involved, and they frequently aren’t believed.”
Often women don’t want to pursue criminal charges against their rapist, and will go through the college’s procedures for handling sexual assault.
“What women are looking for from colleges is the preservation of the non-hostile environment,” Lauerman said. “They just want to be able to go to school and not see their attacker over and over again. They don’t necessarily want anyone to go to jail.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, now we're going to spend some time talking about a problem that doesn't get much attention and doesn't have an easy solution: sexual assault on college campuses. A growing number of women at colleges around the country are filing complaints with the federal government alleging that their schools are failing to meet federal standards for preventing and responding to sexual assault on campus.
In a moment we'll hear from the president of one college that is getting out in front of this issue, but right now we're joined by Bloomberg news reporter John Lauerman, who has done extensive reporting on this. Welcome.
JOHN LAUERMAN: Pleasure to be here.
HOBSON: So you write that the procedures to prevent and investigate rapes and other sexual assaults on campuses are antiquated and amateurish.
LAUERMAN: That's often the case. There have been cases where students are still involved in investigating cases of sexual assault.
HOBSON: The students themselves?
LAUERMAN: The students themselves are involved. Up until last year at University of North Carolina, students were directly involved in this sort of thing. At some colleges - sometimes people who are charged - administers who are charged with investigating sexual assaults deliberately have not been given training because of fear that they'll be biased.
HOBSON: Well, give us a sense first of all of how big the problem is of rape on college campuses.
LAUERMAN: Well, across the country it's estimated - the Justice Department estimated in a study that came out about a decade ago that about one out of four women in college - at some point in her college career will either be the victim of an assault or an attempted assault.
HOBSON: One-fourth of all women.
LAUERMAN: It's staggering when you think about it, and a lot of education still needs to be done.
HOBSON: And many of the offenders are repeat offenders, that they have, as you write, assaulted an average of four people each.
LAUERMAN: So that's some of the research that's come from David Lisak, who is a former University of Massachusetts clinical psychologist. His estimate is something like 90 percent, well over 90 percent, of all college sexual assaults are actually committed by serial rapists. And the reason that that's important is that each time one of these campus sexual assaults occurs, and it's actually reported, and it's only the minority that are reported, probably only on the order of about say five percent of assaults are reported, but each time one is reported, then that is a valuable opportunity to perhaps identify a serial rapist.
HOBSON: But often they're not reported.
LAUERMAN: They've often not reported, and that's for a variety of reasons. I've talked with at least a dozen women who have been sexually assaulted. There is a great deal of shame that's involved, and they frequently aren't believed, even though the rate of women who falsely report sexual assault is in fact very, very low. Studies have shown that, that it's less than - it's less than five percent.
HOBSON: And sometimes they're friends or acquaintances with the assaulter.
LAUERMAN: That's right. That's almost always the case, that they at least know the assailant. And actually in campus sexual assault, what often happens is these assaults are concentrated during the beginning of the year. People are - they're seeking out new relationships, they're going to parties, perhaps they're drinking for the first time. They run into lots of people that they have never met before.
They're in a situation where they trust those people, or at least they want to trust them, and then before they know it, perhaps they become intoxicated, et cetera, and that trust is gone.
HOBSON: Well, and I can hear people that are listening to this saying, well, maybe part of the issue is that when they do report it, there are some questions about the definition of an assault.
LAUERMAN: Yeah, you know, and assaults take place when there's non-consensual sex. And you can't consent to sex when you're intoxicated. There's also, you know, situations where assailants threaten people, or they hold them down. Sometimes they use drugs, et cetera.
So I think many women, young students, come to school without a clear understanding of what consent is. And in those situations they often really can't come to terms with the idea that they've been assaulted. So that interferes with reporting.
HOBSON: Now, you focus specifically on the case of some students at Occidental College in California. Tell us about that.
LAUERMAN: I interviewed this woman who said that she had been sexually assaulted. She had gone public with the charges. She was assaulted in her freshman year. She decided not to report it. She felt like that she was somehow at fault.
Later on, about a year later, she was hanging out with some friends, and she met another woman. The name of her assailant came up. They looked at each other and sort of said I had a bad experience with this person, what about you. They later found out that each of them had been assaulted by the same man.
LAUERMAN: Not long after that, they decided to file reports with the college. In one case, the assailant admitted to the charges. In the other case, he did not acknowledge, but a hearing found him responsible. They expelled him. However, a few months later, after relaying this expulsion to one of the women who had been attacked, they changed their minds, they issued another ruling and said that he would be allowed to return to campus after she had graduated.
And then subsequently, they discovered that a third woman, she had also reported this same man for sexual assault, and I believe he had been found responsible for that, as well. We asked Occidental why this man was being allowed to return to campus, and they were unable to give us an answer. They said it's confidential.
HOBSON: And now these women who are involved in this have filed a complaint saying that the federal government should step in here because Occidental is not living up to its - what's required in terms of creating a safe place to be.
LAUERMAN: That's right. A large group of Occidental women, I believe it's now up above 40 women, have filed complaints saying that Occidental doesn't prevent sexual assaults, that they don't respond to them appropriately, that they don't report them to the government as they should be and that women are not encouraged to report their sexual assaults.
Now Occidental has already hired a couple of former sexual assault prosecutors to help them redesign their policies. They're reviewing actually this particular case, as well, to see if they can respond more effectively.
HOBSON: It sounds, in listening to you talk about this, that one of the big problems is that these colleges and universities are trying to handle this on their own rather than simply turning these people over to the judicial system.
LAUERMAN: Well, see that's a complicated issue because a lot of women don't want to go to the judicial system. I think it's widely perceived by women who are assaulted in any context that the judicial system does not handle sexual assaults well and that women who go through the judicial system often find themselves disbelieved and blamed.
HOBSON: But the colleges do it better?
LAUERMAN: Well, what women are looking for from colleges is again the preservation of the non-hostile environment. In other words they just want to go to school. They don't want to have to switch schools. They just want to be able to go to school and not see their attacker over and over again. They don't necessarily want to see anybody go to jail.
As far as these - adjudicating of cases that come before them, I think that's going to take a lot of work. That's, you know, a very delicate issue. The colleges themselves can be sued by students if they prevent students from coming back to school, if they expel students, and that's always an issue for colleges. And I think, you know, that may be in play at all types of colleges that try to expel students who have been found responsible for sexual assault.
HOBSON: John Lauerman is a reporter for Bloomberg News. He's just done some great reporting on serial rapists on college campuses around the country and the responses to that. John, thank you so much.
LAUERMAN: Thank you.
HOBSON: And when we come back, we'll talk to the president of one college that's trying to get out in front of this issue.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Also a quick note. Later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Robert Siegel will speak with General Salim Idris, the commander of the Syrian rebels. He defected from the Assad regime last summer, has been seeking more arms for rebels from the U.S. That's later today, but back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking about serial rape on college campuses and the growing number of complaints by female students that colleges are not protecting them well enough. Joining us on the line now is Amherst College president, Biddy Martin, who took over at Amherst College two years ago and has shepherded the college through a high-profile student campus rape accusation. President Martin, thanks for joining us.
BIDDY MARTIN: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: So you've had a lot of experience with this, even in your short tenure there at Amherst. What is the core of the problem, do you think?
MARTIN: Well, I wish I knew the core of the most fundamental problem, of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. I suppose there are different ways of trying to get at that problem. But when it comes to how to handle it on college campuses, I can speak about what I found when I came to Amherst, and that is just a sense that our procedures and protocols and our efforts at prevention were simply not robust enough, not systematic enough, and weren't giving students the confidence they obviously need to report incidents of misconduct and assault, and therefore needed to be changed.
HOBSON: Do you think that's a problem nationwide? I mean, before Amherst, you were at University of Wisconsin.
MARTIN: I do think it's a problem nationwide, yes. I think it has been difficult for institutions to keep up with what's expected, and we just haven't done a good enough job, to be honest, in being in front of some of the problems that face our campuses and face our students. And I think there is now a welcome rush to do better.
HOBSON: Now, the reason that this became such a big issues at Amherst and around the country is because of this case involving a former student, Angie Epifano, who says that she was raped in her dorm room by a fellow student. Then she claimed the college talked her out of seeking help, even sent her to a psych ward when she became suicidal. The student who allegedly raped her graduated with honors; she left the school.
How do you feel looking back about the school's response to that incident?
MARTIN: Well, when I learned about it, which was when Angie published her account in the student newspaper this past fall, I felt appalled, first of all, appalled by what happened to her and appalled that the college hadn't handled it better. I had learned in my first year of Amherst, which I've only been here two years, so in my first year I had learned from students that they felt policies, the procedures and the level of focus on sexual misconduct, assault and rape were inadequate.
And so we had begun to initiate changes even before last fall when Angie's account appeared. When I learned of what had occurred, as I say, I was determined that we should be open about where we had responsibility for having failed to respond appropriately and that we communicated that after a study of how we had indeed failed in some ways to respond as well as we should have.
HOBSON: Well, do you think that it should be handled by the college and not by police? I think some people may be surprised that this kind of a crime would not be handled just through the judicial system.
MARTIN: Yes, I think that is an understandable confusion and concern. It is important that those incidents be brought to the point where they can enter a judicial process if the victim wishes to pursue it. I think what a lot of people don't understand is: A, that college and universities are required to set up processes for investigating and conducting hearings on these matters, and remedying the situation. And some survivors will choose to take it further, and some will not, for a complicated range of reasons. When I say take it further, I mean not only further in the on-campus judicial process but out further than that.
HOBSON: To file charges.
MARTIN: To file charges. And every victim or survivor needs to have the right resources so that he or she understands what their options are and is encouraged to seek the remedies that will be most helpful to them and most helpful to the community as a whole.
HOBSON: Well, tell us concrete things here about what is different now about Amherst's response than would have been two years ago.
MARTIN: Yeah, I can give you some good examples. I mean, overall what I would say is the procedures and the processes are much more systematic, much more rigorous. It was the case before this past year that sexual misconduct - assault and rape - went through the same process that all student misconduct cases went through. And one of the things our survivors' groups made very apparent is - and also those who get charged in these cases - they made it very clear that in a small college having a potential future faculty member of classmate sit on a hearing board and learn the kinds of details about one's own experiences put the student at a disadvantage going forward.
So we now have hearing boards made up entirely of people from outside the college. We're fortunate to be in a five-college setting here in western Massachusetts that allows us to collaborate so that we can have people who are trained, who can sit on these hearing boards, who come from outside the college. And I think that's one of the changes that is making the students who have been involved in all of this more comfortable about the idea that victims will come forward.
HOBSON: Well, that's the key, I guess, according to what we just heard from John Lauerman at Bloomberg, that many women just don't want to report these. Maybe they're friends with the assailant.
MARTIN: Yes. I hope in all cases - the most egregious and those that might seem at one level less egregious - I hope in all cases that students at Amherst will feel confident coming forward. The important thing is to work hard on the front end, of course, and we have new training, bystander training initiatives underway. We've worked really hard and will continue to work harder to make the entire community aware of their responsibility when they hear, see or hear about any incident that should be reported.
And what I really wish is that education itself, and engaging young people in meaningful discussions about the issues, will help prevent some of this from happening and, when it does happen, put people in the position where they have confidence they will not suffer worse consequences by virtue of coming forward, whether they themselves are the victim or perhaps a bystander.
HOBSON: Biddy Martin, if there's another college president listening to this somewhere in the country, what would your advice be to them about handling this problem?
MARTIN: Look it right in the face. Be open about where our shortcomings are and what needs to be changed. Listen to our students and make the changes that are necessary, knowing that perfection is not possible in anything but that that should be our aspiration.
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HOBSON: Biddy Martin is president of Amherst College in Massachusetts. Thank you so much for joining us.
MARTIN: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And as I said, a complex problem, no easy solutions. We would love to hear your thoughts about what we've just heard. What do you think should be done about sexual assault on college campuses? What is the core of the problem? Maybe your school has a good solution. You can go to hereandnow.org right now and leave a comment.
You can also join the conversation on Facebook.com/hereandnowradio.
YOUNG: And you can always tweet your thoughts @hereandnow, @jeremyhobson, @hereandnowrobin. Love to hear from you. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.