Here's How You Make Sure Colleges Are Dealing Responsibly With Sexual Assault

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) invited Emma Sulkowicz to be her guest at the State of the Union. Even if you don't recognize Sulkowicz' name, you are probably familiar with her performance art piece, "Carry That Weight." The piece consists of Emma carrying her mattress with her wherever she went on campus as a protest against Columbia University's decision not to expel the man who allegedly raped her.

Two University of North Carolina student-activists, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, are the subjects of a documentary about campus sexual assault, "The Hunting Ground," that screened at Sundance. Because of Sulkowicz, Pino, Clark, and student-activists across the country (many of them survivors of sexual assault), the federal government is currently investigating 90 universities for failing to properly investigate sexual assault cases and/or failing to appropriately discipline students who have committed sexual assault. Sen. Gillibrand invited Sulkowicz to the SOTU to maintain national attention on the issue, which would be addressed by the legislation Gillibrand is working to pass into law. The bill is called the Campus Accountability And Safety Act

A Few Facts:

  • 16-20 percent of women are raped while in college.
  • 88 percent of victims do not report rape.
  • Eight percent of male students are believed to be responsible for 90 percent of assaults.
  • In 2013, colleges reported over 5,000 sexual assault offenses to the US Department of Education, and yet 41 percent of schools have not conducted an investigation of a sexual assault complaint in the last five years.
  • Schools permanently expel only 10 to 25 percent of students who are found “responsible” for sexual assault.

Clearly, campuses are ineffective dealing with sexual assault. So why are they involved at all? Why don't students just deal directly with the police?

Campus' investigations are not intended to replace police investigations. Ideally, both police and campuses would conduct separate investigations. But there are many reasons why victims might want to have an investigation done by their school, even if they do not press charges with the police. Campuses can provide protections that the police cannot. The police can't bar your assailant from taking the same classes as you, living in the same dorm as you, being in the drama club or on a sports team with you, or harassing you in the cafeteria. The police can't require that your professors give you extra time on your assignments as you recover from the trauma of an attack. Some victims don't want to go to the police because the police are notoriously terrible at handling rape cases. Officers often default to not believing victims, are badgering and rude, and are reluctant to investigate or prosecute rape cases. Even when they do prosecute them, they are not always a priority. There is currently a backlog of over 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S. Only two percent of rapists will ever see jail time.

Not only can schools offer extra services to students that the justice system cannot, but they are also required to. The government requires all schools that receive federal funds to provide people of all genders equal education under Title IX. Gendered violence on campus can deny some students equal educational experiences, so universities have an imperative to address these crimes or risk losing Title IX funding.

Despite this imperative, many schools provide their administrators with no formal training on sexual violence and often re-traumatize victims by treating them poorly. This happens because schools have an incentive to avoid investigating sexual assault, (or to make the investigations heavily favor the accused). They want to have good PR, so they under report the prevalence of sexual assault. They also fear the liability of being sued by students expelled after being accused of rape.

Currently, it is much easier to get kicked out of school for plagiarism than it is for sexual assault. In many cases, it is the victim, not the accused, who is forced out of school. While it's unjust and distressing for those individual victims, it is also a major safety concern for the entire campus. Many perpetrators of sexual violence are serial perpetrators. Ninety percent of campus sexual assaults are committed by only eight percent of male students. That means every time the university chooses not to expel a student accused of assault, there is a strong probability that that student will assault another victim.

So what can you do?

You can ask your college or university how they prevent and respond to sexual assaults on campus. Here is a list of questions you can ask:

  • What kind of rape education and prevention programs are in place on campus? Are these programs mandatory for all students? (FYI, self-defense isn't enough. Ideally rape prevention education is given to all students, not just women.)
  • What happens when a student reports a sexual assault on campus?
  • How are students disciplined after being accused of sexual assault?
  • Do administrators have formal training in sexual and gendered violence and working with victims?
  • What kind of counseling is available for students who have been victims of, or accused of, sexual assault?

If your school isn't preventing and investigating sexual assault properly, what can you do?

You can organize protests and/or petitions to demand that administrators get formal training on how to deal with these cases. You can also organize student-led rape prevention education programs. Your schools' Title IX office, Health Center, and/or Women's or Gender Studies Department may all be good resources.