The statistics are alarming for sexual assault on college campuses. The CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that nearly one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. And although all assaults should be prosecuted, very few cases are brought to justice.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the number of reporting has gone up, but most reports of rape go unpunished. Other reports have revealed that less than 5 percent of college women who are victims of rape or attempted rape report it to police and less than 1 percent of assailants are disciplined by the school, arrested, charged or convicted.
As part of the recent Anita: Speaking Truth to Power Conference, community activists, public policy experts and professors all convened on the Stanford campus to discuss the need to fight back against the striking statistics and explore ways to restructure the current system.
The conference featured a panel discussion that focused on campus sexual assault and Title IX rights with Alexandra Brodsky and Annie Clark – both leaders in the fight to end rape and educate college students about their rights. Brodsky and Clark spoke about the Title IX policy and politics of sexual assault on college campuses. Brodsky is the founding co-director of the survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence, Know Your IX. Clark is the co-founder of End Rape on Campus, an organization dedicated to educating and assisting people seeking to file a federal complaint.
Before Title IX, many cases of sexual assault focused on the rights of the perpetrator not the victim. Title IX, which was passed in 1972, affirms the right of all students to be educated in an environment free of discrimination, harassment and violence. Universities are now obligated to prevent the reoccurrence of sexual violence as well as do whatever they can to remedy the civil rights violations and harm done to the victim.
However, as Brodsky noted, “school adjudication is not the criminal justice system.” So-called punishments on campus are often just slaps across the wrist. Universities are afraid to punish, as Brodsky put it, some “nice young boy whose education is going to be ruined because he accidentally raped someone.”
“What kind of liberty is at risk?” Brodsky asked. “The state can kill you, they can throw you in jail. Getting thrown out of school is not the same as going to jail. The liberty at issue is less serious.”
The privilege to an education is not the same as the right to freedom and, as Clark said, “expulsion is the worst that can happen. And that rarely happens, anyway.” Suspensions are less rare, but these suspensions are sometimes over the summer or when classes are not in session. “These punishments are ridiculous and need to be changed immediately,” Brodsky said.
In addition, our own insights by Clayman Institute research associate Debra Guckenheimer echoes Clark and Brodsky’s concerns related to liberty and justice. “Perpetrators are increasingly hiring attorneys to represent them,” Guckenheimer noted. “When universities provide an advocate only to survivors and allow attorneys to represent perpetrators, this makes the adjudication process highly problematic.”
“You need to make sure that you’re in a position to hold your school accountable,” Brodsky said. “Really accountable. The kind of accountable where victims know, for certain, that perpetrators will get punished – not just suspended for a year or chastised.”
Brodsky outlined the three stages in the long, often ineffective process of reporting sexual assault on campus.
Brodsky, Clark and universities across the country are working together to restructure administrations and educate students to serve justice. But students often don’t know who to turn to for advice or help. Where do they report sexual assault? Clark said that students tell academic advisors – professors, even teaching assistants – who are ill-trained and under-prepared to handle the complaints. Title IX coordinators are trained and prepared. Title IX coordinators are neutral experts, employed by a university, to ensure that each instance of sex discrimination is fully investigated.
Catherine Criswell serves as Stanford’s Title IX coordinator. These coordinators also work to make sure that whole campus communities – not just victims of sexual harassment or assault – work towards becoming safe places, free from fear and whole-heartedly committed to the cause of ending sexual discrimination. While Title IX coordinators ensure that an investigation happens, survivors of sexual assault also need additional support and advocacy which may not be available on all campuses.
“Universities often lack in providing support services effectively,” noted Guckenheimer. “At Stanford, even after a student reports their case to a Title IX coordinator, it can then take weeks to get an appointment with counseling and psychological services. Students may turn for services to rape crisis centers for counseling and advocacy, but centers may be located far from a student’s campus.”
For those who do not have access to a crisis center near campus, external organizations can provide support for victims. RAINN is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization providing free and confidential assistance and support 24 hours a day through their local rape crisis center hotline at 800.656.HOPE
As one student asked, “What is the best mode to educate around Title IX?” Clark and Brodsky recommended administrative change.
Clark said that university administrations are often decentralized. Each department is in a separate silo and requires different reports and forms. In order to fully report an assault, a student must repeat their story over and over and over again. In what Clark called “re-victimization,” the reporting student often lives out the trauma with each re-telling.
“Your goal is to help your students. Think about centralizing your resources,” Clark noted. Orientations should include information about Title IX and student rights.
Brodsky recommended “external investigators” not hired by the university, so that they are free from loyalty or bias to the university. With a “single investigator with a board, a survivor advocate, and [personnel] contracted from a local rape crisis center,” students will feel more comfortable and, hopefully, more likely to report these crimes.
Often, the public’s first response to sexual violence is disbelief. The survivor is blamed for what they wore or consumed. A cultural shift is needed to begin believing survivors and shifting the blame to perpetrators.
In response to raising awareness about sexual assaults on campuses and instigating a shift in perception, Clark encouraged the students in the room to think, “What is the best activist thing I can do?”
Write op-eds for you school newspaper, protest, flyer. The hardest one – and maybe the most important – is for students to tell their own story.
Brodsky warned that “in order to get people emotionally invested, you need a personal story and that’s a tremendous burden to put on a survivor.” The victim is painted as “someone’s sad rape girl [who must] cry publicly and then people care.”
“Think about your objectives,” Clark said, before going to a local reporter or going public. “[Are your objectives] to tell your story? Is it to get your school to change?”
It’s an enormous burden for students, but, as Clark cautioned, “If you don’t tell your own story, you will get misquoted, misrepresented, misunderstood.”
While the statistics are dismal, Brodsky and Clark’s panel discussion provided insight and context for creating more effective paths to justice in sexual assault cases and greater equality on college campuses.
The safety of young women on college campuses is not just about safety or women or college campuses. It is about this society. It is about the fundamental dream of gender equality. It is about a basic faith in human decency.
The issues surrounding sexual assault raise some of the biggest questions of our time: Can we create a world free from fear? Can we refuse to accept these brutalities? Can women finally live their lives without the threat of sexual assault behind every closed door? Can we create this world? Can we create a society that is free from the fear of violence and inequality?
As Brodsky, Clark and activists across the world are proving today, the answer is “yes” but it will take work and resources to effectively carry out the Title IX process. We can create this world. We must. And with better education for prevention, reporting and handling of cases, we will.