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The Steubenville Rape Case Is Closed, But What About Sexual Assault in College?

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By Nakia D. Hansen

Ladies, I'm sorry to have to inform you that the War on Women persists and you have been drafted into the fight whether you like it or not. The latest battleground to see action is the American college campus -- a space that is supposed to foster our educational and personal growth, preparing us to be the leaders of tomorrow. Instead, colleges across the country are increasingly in the news for the sexual assaults occurring on their campuses. While campus sexual assault is nothing new, the complicity by college administrations in downplaying, mishandling, or covering up these crimes has fallen to a new level of shamefulness.

This issue came to my attention while I was checking up on news about my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I learned that my beloved school was being accused of violating seven different laws stemming from its handling of student allegations of sexual assault. I started following the story of the young women who, in January 2013, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (on behalf of more than 60 victims) alleging that UNC violated their rights under Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Campus Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights, the Clery Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. According to a petition addressed to UNC's Chancellor and Board of Trustees:

Over the past decade, hundreds of students have encountered hostility, victim blaming, and lack of certain administrators' support when reporting sexual assault and harassment. Survivors have been re-victimized by a system that strives for surface compliance, but that in practice, contributes to their trauma and the tolerance of sexual violence.

As an alum, an anti-violence against women activist, a woman, and a feminist, I was understandably hurt and angered by what was happening at UNC. But even more so, I'm enraged by what appears to be a trend in this country of universities failing to put proper procedures in place to prevent sexual assault in the first place, investigate claims of sexual assault, protect and support victims, and hold perpetrators accountable. And this is not just an UNC issue.

  • In 2011, University of Notre Dame student Lizzy Seeberg took her own life after allegedly being shamed and intimidated by ND football players for reporting a sexual assault at the hands of one of their teammates. According to the Washington Post, "At the time of her death, 10 days after reporting the attack to campus police, who have jurisdiction for even the most serious crimes on school property, investigators still had not interviewed the accused. It took them five more days after she died to get around to that, though they investigated Lizzy herself quite thoroughly, even debriefing a former roommate at another school with whom she'd clashed."
  • In March 2011, a group of Yale University students filed a complaint with the Department of Education claiming that the university failed to eliminate sexual discrimination on campus - specifically acts intended to intimidate and silence women's allegations of sexual assault. The incident that most clearly stands out was the parade of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity members across campus chanting "No means yes! Yes means anal!" in front of women's dorms.
  • In 2012 a rape survivor at Amherst College spoke up about the administration's mishandling of allegations on campus. "When I came forward to my dean [about the sexual assault], I was basically urged to take the year off and go home and take a job at Starbucks ... and to come back when the [perpetrator] was no longer here," said Dana Bolger to the Huffington Post. That same year, Amherst student Angie Epifano shared her account of sexual assault on campus and the resulting fall out in the school's newspaper, "I am sickened by the administration's attempts to cover up survivors' stories, cook their books to discount rapes, pretend that withdrawals never occur, quell attempts at change, and sweep sexual assaults under a rug." Most tragically, Trey Malone committed suicide because he was unable to cope with the sexual assault he suffered at Amherst. A passage from his suicide note reads:

    What began as an earnest effort to help on the part of Amherst, became an emotionless hand washing. In those places I should've received help, I saw none. I suppose there are many possible reasons for this. But in the end, I'm still here and so too is that night. I hold no ill will nor do I place an iota of blame upon my family. I blame a society that remains unwilling to address sexual assault and rape. One that pays some object form of lip service to the idea of sexual crimes while working its hardest to marginalize its victims. One where the first question a college president can pose to me, regarding my own assault is, "Have you handled your drinking problem?"

  • In 2012, Olivia Hansen asserted that Rice University, nationally ranked for having the "happiest students," maintained its status by shoving unhappy students out the door. Her travails with the university administration after reporting her sexual assault read as a cautionary tale to anyone who dares speak up.
  • Earlier this year, in the case of a leaked sex tape secretly recorded without the victim's knowledge or permission, Oklahoma State University police released the name and personal information of the victim but kept the information of the suspect and witnesses confidential. Apparently this is not an isolated case of questionable administration of sex crimes by OSU. According to reports, it took nearly a month for university officials to inform police that a single student was accused of several assaults and seven students found guilty of sexual misconduct dating back to 2010, yet none had been expelled.
  • Just a few weeks ago, Occidental College students protested the school's decision not to use the campus alert system to inform the student body that a rape had occurred on campus when such notification could be key to protecting other students from harm and/or capturing the suspect.
  • Harvard College's student paper, the Harvard Crimson, recently published a lengthy look at sexual assault at the school. Female students shared their concerns anonymously (for fear of retaliation). One student called Paola "expresses deep disappointment with the way that administrators respond to students coming forward with experiences of sexual assault. 'They question the event so much and ask if you were in the wrong so many times that, after a while, one begins questioning if it even happened.'"

What's worse is that I could go on.

A 2011 National Institute of Justice report revealed that between 20-25 percent of women, and approximately 6.1 percent of men are victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault while they are in college. Having been victimized in this way, it's imperative that college administrations get out of the way of justice and cease re-victimizing these young people in ways that could impact their entire lives. Colleges need to stop adjudicating these crimes altogether. They lack the authority to do much of anything other than expel and they've proven lackadaisical in reporting incidents to police which would tarnish their reputations and negatively impact enrollment. I say protect the students -- female and male -- and remove the self-interested universities from the equation. And they say the War on Women doesn't exist?


This post was previously published at Parlour Magazine.