Big Shame on Campus

When 1 in 5 women will be the victim of a sexual assault during her college years, you'd think schools would tackle the problem head-on. Instead, investigations are lackluster or nonexistent and rapists go unpunished. Now victims are fighting back—not against their attackers, but against the schools that violated their trust and kept them silent for too long.

Rape happens image
(Image credit: Marie Claire)

In the winter of 2012, Grace Peter, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was raped. The biology major was admittedly very drunk at an off-campus party when a stranger led her to the other side of the apartment complex and forced himself inside of her. Peter remembers saying no, screaming, shoving, and kicking to try and make him stop. She didn't know his name or that he was a fellow Tar Heel, and she didn't report it to the school or the police right away. Being raped was horrific enough—Peter was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and took a semester off from school—but after learning her rapist's identity, reporting it to university officials made the nightmare worse. She had opted to go through UNC's Honor System, the student-led body that adjudicates school honor-code violations, thinking it would be swifter and less painful than a full criminal investigation. Provided with an undergraduate student "lawyer," Peter pleaded her case for seven hours before the Honor Court, seated at a table with the senior she says raped her. The questions asked ranged from insensitive to insulting: Did the antidepressants she had been taking predispose her to imagining the assault? Was her PTSD caused by something other than the attack? The members of the Honor Court felt because she and her rapist hadn't known each other, he couldn't have been aware of how drunk she was or that she didn't like being "pushed around." The verdict of not guilty devastated Peter, who filed an appeal and was granted a second hearing. But her assailant was afforded extension after extension, even as Peter begged administrators to schedule it. She missed classes to sit by the phone in case the Office of Student Conduct called with the new hearing date, but "the administration didn't seem pressed to finish it or find a solution," says Peter, now 21.

Last April, more than a year after she reported the rape, she dropped the case. "I felt like it was never going to end," she says, "and I just couldn't do it anymore." Her alleged rapist had graduated, so even if Peter had continued to push for a hearing, he likely wouldn't have been punished. (After all, you can't suspend an alumnus.) Since the attack, Peter is pursuing a less rigorous B.A. in biology instead of a B.S.; has withdrawn from her role as campus forums programmer and her position in the student union; and is counting the days until graduation in May, when she can "run away from Chapel Hill and not look back." (She chose not to transfer schools because UNC is the best public university she can afford.) "If I had known it was going to take more than a year and change so much about my experience at Carolina, I definitely would not have reported it," Peter says. "I was constantly betrayed by the university. Every step forward I took, I was defeated." Separately, before Peter's case, a UNC administrator asked 2011 graduate Annie Clark to think about what she might have done to avoid her rape: "Rape is like a football game," the administrator said, according to Clark. "If you look back on the game and you're the quarterback, is there anything that you would have done differently?"

Peter, Clark, and two other students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in January that alleges UNC violated the rights of sexual assault victims and facilitated a hostile environment for students reporting sexual assault. Joining the students was Melinda Manning, the university's assistant dean of students for 11 years, who stepped down a month before the complaint was filed. Manning says other administrators applied "subtle pressure" on her to keep the number of reported rapes at a certain lower range each year. "Most schools would sweep sexual assault under the rug, minimize it, rather than fully acknowledge it. We were certainly guilty of that," she says. "At the end of the day, I felt like we were really failing our students. Until schools are willing to acknowledge the substantial problem it is, they're not going to be willing to put in the resources to really look at their policies and procedures and make sure that they are victim-friendly and fair for all parties."

A UNC spokeswoman says the university cannot comment on specific cases, but she e-mailed several statements the administration has issued in response to allegations from Peter, Clark, and other current and former students who say the school mishandled their cases. "We're focused on the safety of our students, as well as faculty and staff, and have an obligation to do everything we can to provide the care and support they need if a sexual assault occurs," then Chancellor Holden Thorp told the campus community in a March 2013 statement. In recent months, UNC formed a task force made up of students, faculty, staff, and outside experts to review the school's policies and procedures. So far, the policies have been revised to provide equal appeal rights for both the accused and the accuser, and the burden of proof has been lowered so victims need only prove a crime more likely occurred rather than occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. The university has also created three staff positions to improve UNC's response to cases of sexual violence and transferred jurisdiction from the student-led Honor Court to a committee of specially trained members that consists of one faculty member, one staff member, and one student.

Schools of all sizes and levels of prestige might take cues from UNC's efforts at course correction. College women nationwide say they're being contradicted, discouraged, ignored, and even blamed when they come forward to report a sexual assault—and not just by fellow students like those who decided Peter's case. Twenty-one-year-old Angie Epifano, a former student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, whose online account of her rape and subsequent treatment by university officials went viral last year, says she was told that pressing charges was useless because the student who raped her was about to graduate. The school's sexual assault counselor said, "Rape happens. You need to forgive and forget." (Amherst says the counselor no longer works there.) When Tucker Reed, 23, a theater major at the University of Southern California, told an administrator last year that she had been raped, she says the administrator was dismissive, even after being given an audio recording on which Reed's perpetrator can be heard admitting to the rape. "We know that all the students at this university are good people," the administrator told her. "That's why they're here." (USC issued a statement saying it takes "all reports of sexual violence extremely seriously.") Hope Brinn, a junior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says the school's Title IX coordinator asked, "What did you do that would make him act like that?" when she reported being sexually harassed by a fellow student. (Swarthmore says that person is no longer the Title IX coordinator, though she is still employed by the university.) Kylie Angell, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Connecticut, told a campus police officer she was being stalked by the man who raped her. His response? "Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, otherwise rape is going to keep happening till the cows come home." (UConn says it was difficult to review Angell's case because the police department wasn't aware of the comment until a year after it was allegedly made.) Like Peter, many of these women and others interviewed for this story say that given the chance to do it all over, they wouldn't report the crime. And why would they, if they were made to feel as Reed did: "Like I was being continually raped dealing with these people."

But rather than continue to feel powerless and alone, hundreds of students and alumni have, like Peter and Clark, banded together to file complaints with the ED; start nonprofits; and build a survivor network too vocal and law-savvy to contradict, discourage, ignore, or blame. In their way, they refuse to be victims all over again. "It didn't start out by people saying, 'We're going to file a complaint! We're going to sue the school!'" says Reed. "It was more like, 'How could they have done this to you and you and you, and think we wouldn't end up talking to each other and figuring out the pattern?'"

College administrators are legally obligated to take steps to end sexual assault at their schools. Under Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, colleges cannot discriminate on the basis of gender. The law prohibits sexual harassment, including acts of sexual violence, because it interferes with a student's right to receive an education free from discrimination. (Rape can also be prosecuted by the criminal justice system, but because sexual assaults pose an obstacle to a student's having equal access to education, colleges are required to act. The women interviewed here did not pursue criminal charges because they, like Peter, thought going through the school would be faster and less arduous.) College officials also have an obligation under the Clery Act—named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old student at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who was raped and murdered by a fellow student in 1986—to track and disclose information about crime on or near campus. This year alone, Title IX or Clery Act complaints that allege administrators mishandled incidents of sexual assault have been filed against Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; Occidental College in California; Swarthmore College; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of California, Berkeley; and USC, in addition to UNC. (Asked for comment, all schools said they are reviewing their policies and implementing changes.) At press time, the ED was investigating 18 Title IX complaints that involved sexual violence allegations (including the one filed by the UNC students and Manning) and 14 Clery Act sexual-violence-related complaints. If found guilty, schools can be handed hefty fines—not to mention a blemish on a reputation they tried to protect at a victim's expense. In May, after a seven-year investigation, the ED fined Yale University in Connecticut $165,000 (which was later reduced to $155,000) for failing to report four incidents of forcible sex offenses in 2001 and 2002 under the Clery Act. (The ED's Office for Civil Rights [OCR] says it tries to wrap up Title IX investigations within six months but that Clery Act reviews, which are harder to prove, take several months to several years.) In September, Yale released a document to clarify the meaning of "nonconsensual sex" in response to protests that the university was not punishing perpetrators aggressively enough.

Grid of six women

(Image credit: Marie Claire)

This stunning lack of urgency on the part of schools prompted the Obama administration to try to spur college leaders to take these crimes more seriously. In April 2011, OCR sent college administrators nationwide a 19-page "Dear Colleague" letter to more clearly spell out what is expected of them. "It's too easy for sexual violence to exist in the shadows and behind closed doors," says John DiPaolo, deputy assistant secretary for policy at OCR. "It's really unique and extraordinary in a terrible way that there's that level of sexual violence going on in places where otherwise things are relatively safe. What if that were the case with general assault or robberies at gunpoint? It would just be unthinkable." The letter directed universities to resolve cases promptly (typical investigations should take about 60 days) and use the "preponderance of evidence" standard of proof (i.e., if it's more likely than not that an assault occurred, the school must respond). The letter also reminded schools of their obligation under Title IX to protect the victim during the investigation, which may mean rearranging class schedules and dorm assignments, or removing the accused student from the school altogether so the victim is not forced to regularly encounter her assailant.

But writing down what should happen doesn't mean it's actually happening. "We have policies, we have very pretty words, but implementation is lacking," says Clark. College administrators have an incentive—as perverse as it is—to silence rape allegations. Keeping the college's reputation untarnished is the foremost concern in order to keep the number of applicants consistent and the alumni dollars flowing—the stuff of glossy campus brochures. "Colleges have a lot of financial pressure to not tell the truth about rape and sexual assault on campus," says Caroline Heldman, Ph.D., chair of the politics department at Occidental College, who is among the 37 faculty, students, and alumni who filed Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the liberal arts school in April, alleging that the administration covered up rapes and improperly reported and adjudicated sexual assaults. "[Administrators] go to great lengths to hide or underreport the issue." Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit that works to prevent campus crime, agrees that many college officials worry about the fallout from transparency, a disturbingly misguided concern. "There's an undeniable fear that if we talk about this, we're going to have to respond more," she says. "Some administrators are concerned with having to explain the higher numbers." Kiss says prospective students and parents should view a high number of reported sexual assaults as a possible sign that the school has created an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward and confident they will get help. "I've seen universities get out in front of it when they've developed a new sexual assault response team or educational program that is likely to result in more reporting," she says. "They say, 'We're going to let people know that how we deal with sexual assault is a priority for us.'"

But for every institution forced to take an unvarnished look at its policies and procedures in the face of a scandal, there is another pretending its campus is immune. The cold reality is, 1 in 5 college women will be the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault during her four years of school, as opposed to 1 in 6 of all American women in their lifetime—and colleges are not doing enough to change the culture of sexual violence on campus. "People think it probably involved alcohol and that there was a lack of clear communication about consent. There's a sense that it was a mistake, an accident," says David Lisak, Ph.D., a forensic consultant who has studied rape and sexual assault since the 1980s. "Those kinds of assaults do occur, but they're a small minority." Lisak's research shows almost two-thirds of college rapists rape more than once, which explains why repeat rapists account for 9 out of every 10 rapes on college campuses. Yet only 10 to 25 percent of students found responsible for sexual assault at college are expelled, according to the Center for Public Integrity. (It's not any better in the criminal justice system—only about 3 percent of rapists serve prison time, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.) "I don't particularly like phrasing it this way, but in a purely statistical sense, a college campus is a pretty safe place to commit a sexual assault from the perspective of a rapist. Your odds of having anything serious happen to you are really, really small," Lisak says. (An August article on delves into how to encourage more college women victims to report sex crimes; a startling 95 percent never do.) "There's simply no way that an institution can respond effectively when the assumptions on which it's creating its policies are really off the mark," says Lisak.

Those misguided policies often mean college women can't find the information or support they need. Once the UNC women went public with their complaint, they were inundated with calls, e-mails, Facebook messages, and tweets from college women from across the country. "They'd say, 'This is happening at my school, too, what do I do?'" says Clark, who, along with her friend Andrea Pino, has become an unofficial leader of the group. Clark and Pino, a 21-year-old UNC senior political science major who was raped at an off-campus party, field calls at all hours and help students file complaints and craft media plans. They also started a private Facebook group as a sort of virtual command center. "They'll say, 'Hey, my case is going through the adjudication process—give me advice on this' or 'How can I talk to my parents about PTSD?'" Clark says. "It's ridiculously active with hundreds of people helping and supporting each other."

At the time her complaint was filed, Clark was living in Eugene, Oregon, working as an administrator at the University of Oregon, and had turned her one-bedroom apartment into a "survivor hostel" of sorts, where victims of sexual assault from colleges across the U.S. came to get away. The women kept track of all the schools they were building cases against on walls covered in butcher paper, sections of which were devoted to self-expression—song lyrics, pictures, or astonishing tone-deaf comments they'd heard when reporting their rapes. Clark has since left her job, and Pino took a semester off from school. They moved to Los Angeles over the summer and helped start the nonprofit End Rape on Campus (EROC). There, they and five other women who filed complaints against their universities provide free support as others do the same. They are also involved in a group known as Know Your IX, which educates college students about their rights under Title IX. Someday soon, they hope to start a more formal survivor hostel for students who can intern for the organizations. "If you asked me a year ago whether I would be trying to start a national movement, I would have said, 'What are you talking about?'" says Clark. "You're dealing with people who are going through hell and administrators who aren't doing anything, so trying to figure out how to best support everyone and also take care of yourself is hard." For Carolyn Luby, a 22-year-old University of Connecticut senior who was sexually harassed, the group has filled a hole. "In feeling hopeless and unsupported by our schools, we found support in each other," says Luby. "And while that's great, that's not the way it should be."

Kayla Webley Adler

Kayla Webley Adler is the Deputy Editor of ELLE magazine. She edits cover stories, profiles, and narrative features on politics, culture, crime, and social trends. Previously, she worked as the Features Director at Marie Claire magazine and as a Staff Writer at TIME magazine.