Trish Oberweis is a member of the Sociology Faculty in the department of Sociology & Criminal Justice Studies at SIUE. She is a long-standing and active member of the Women’s Studies program. Recently, Oberweis delivered a talk about sexual assault on college campuses as part of our SIUE Women’s Studies Speaker Series. In this blog entry, she conveys what she believes to be some of the fundamental elements affecting reporting of campus sexual assault.
Reporting sexual assaults on campus is a tricky, sticky issue. There are several layers of concerns, and new avenues for assault survivors to use, although these are not problem-free.
First an obvious point: no agency can respond to campus sexual assault without a report that the crime has occurred. Yet reporting is woefully rare. Only about 8% of all rapes (on or off campus) are reported to police, and a 2015 study found that fewer than half of the most severe cases of campus sexual assault were reported—to anyone. Some of the victims who do choose to report the events do so to seek justice: they want their attackers to be punished. Many others do it to promote safety: they want their attackers to be removed from their lives and/or they want to prevent him (and it is usually a him) from being able to assault anyone else. These are all excellent reasons for reporting the crime.
Traditionally, the crime could only be reported to the police and the avenue for redress was the criminal justice system. Research suggests that, for a variety of reasons, this avenue is wildly unpopular with victims. Research clearly identifies a string of excellent reasons for the well-established tradition of avoiding police. But the times are changing.
Research has demonstrated for decades that college campuses are not safe spaces for women, and recent attention has centered on the unique problem of campus sexual assault. This crime phenomenon is unique for a number of reasons, but in particular because entering college marks a time of relative freedom and experimentation. The crime of campus sexual assault most often victimizes the youngest (freshman) students. Statistically, safety increases every year until graduation. During their college years, though, roughly 1 in 4-5 female students are sexually assaulted, including the 11-13% (depending on the study) whose bodies will be penetrated during the attack. Other than age, risk factors include prior sexual assault victimization, use of alcohol and other drugs, and sorority membership (perhaps as an extension of the alcohol and other drug risk factor, as “Greek” students are more likely than their non-pledged counterparts to drink alcohol, and to do so more heavily). (Learn more here or here or check out a summary here.)
Today, in 2015, under the authority of the US Department of Education, colleges and Universities have created a response protocol to sexual assault that runs parallel to the criminal justice system and operates independently of it. In the same way that campus officials can punish pot smokers, under aged drinkers and other criminal offenders on campus without the criminal justice system, so to can they now investigate and adjudicate claims of campus sexual assault. The standard of proof in campus investigations is limited to “the preponderance of the evidence” and not the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is because the proceedings on campus are civil, not criminal, and because the punishments resulting from campus hearings cannot ever include University-mandated incarceration, whatever the circumstances. In essence, the university is empowered to move an alleged offenders out of the victim’s residence hall or classrooms, or even to suspend or expel the accused student if the available evidence suggests that it is more likely than not that the accused student perpetrated the acts. Moreover, the investigation, hearing, and adjudication are entirely independent of the criminal justice system. No police report is required for the University to investigate and act, but a victim is able to activate either or both systems of adjudication, as he/she deems appropriate.
The benefits of this parallel system are obvious: a woman a decade ago who was assaulted or raped on campus by a fellow student would potentially have to live near her rapist or assaulter. She likely would have continued to see him in her classes, at her dinner hour, or on the way to the showers. His presence in her life may have been inescapable, terrifying and/or humiliating. Her avenue for relief would have been to leave school. Allowing a separate system creates an opportunity to move the offender and the victim apart, or even to create accountability for the offender, although the first small study of outcomes undertaken by the Pulitzer-prize winning Center for Public Integrity shows that consequences are typically very light (such as suspending the attacker for a summer semester), even for repeat offenders, and expulsions are almost non-existent.