A Disappointing Response
For many college students who allege they’ve been raped each year, disappointment may indeed be the norm. One national study funded by the Justice Department found that one in five women who attend college will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates. But students reporting sexual assault routinely say they face a host of institutional barriers in pursuing the on-campus remedies meant to keep colleges and universities safe, according to a nine-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. The result, say experts, is a widespread feeling that justice isn’t being served, and may not even be worth pursuing.
In conducting its probe, the Center interviewed 48 experts familiar with the college disciplinary process — lawyers, student affairs administrators, conduct hearing officers, assault services directors, and victim advocates. The inquiry included a review of hundreds of pages of records in select cases, and examinations of 10 years worth of complaints filed against institutions with the Education Department under Title IX and the Clery Act, as well as a survey of 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses. The Center also interviewed 33 women who reported being sexually assaulted by other students. Sexual assault includes not only rape, but also a variety of sexual offenses.
Crisis counselors and service providers who work with college students described barriers as overt as a dean expressing disbelief. These counselors cited institutional barriers on campus more often than any other factor as a discouragement to students pursuing complaints of sexual assault, according to a Center survey of 152 on- and off-campus centers that provide direct services to victims.
Lawyers pointed out failures as subtle as an institution’s neglecting to provide access to a professional victim’s advocate to guide students through a complicated and intimidating process. Students cited fears that their friends would get in trouble for drinking or drug use, or that their names would not be kept confidential. Many alleged victims told the Center they had encountered roadblocks from their schools. Of those students who said they’d met discouragement, most transferred or withdrew from their schools, while their alleged attackers were almost uniformly unpunished.
Some of the most fundamental obstacles to students pursuing sexual assault complaints are also illegal, say lawyers. Colleges and universities may be flouting federal laws like Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in education, and the Clery Act, which is intended to document campus crime. (See our companion story for more on the laws that govern how colleges and universities respond to sexual assault.) These laws require that institutions investigate and take action to end sexual assault, and mandate policies for addressing complaints on campus.
Together with the personal and social barriers to reporting — some of them unique to college — these institutional hurdles help explain the silence that often envelops sexual assault on campus. College students report sexual assault even less often than the general public does, a 2000 Justice Department-funded report found. That report concluded that more than 95 percent of students who are sexually assaulted remain silent.
Mike Segawa, president of the national organization Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), says most colleges and universities want to be “responsive and supportive” to students reporting sexual assaults. He says schools are also acting to address perceived roadblocks.
But for rape survivors who believe that their college stood in the way of pursuing a sexual assault complaint, the experience of dealing with the school can be traumatizing. “They feel like someone they trusted their lives with has betrayed them,” says S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at the college safety advocacy group Security On Campus Inc. “It’s as life-altering — if not more so — than the rape or sexual assault itself.”
Feelings of Self-Doubt
Wright’s memory first failed her, then it tortured her.
“Drinking in a dorm room w/ people I know,” Wright wrote in her report to the residence life office. “I then do not remember what happend [sic] after 1:00 am. I do remember a little of the incident. I then went to the hospital the next morning w/ [her friend] Kelly Rocco b/c I knew that I was raped.”
All she remembered of the incident was being in a dorm bed, terrified, trying to tell a man she didn’t know to get off of her. The blood in her underwear, and the pain, told her the rest.
Before a college woman who has been sexually assaulted even gets to a dean’s door, she often has to get past herself — her own self-blame, or her own memory lapses, experts say.
Less than half of college women who are raped identify it as rape, even privately, to judge from the sample in the Justice Department report. In Center interviews, many alleged victims described intense doubt about what had happened. It conflicted with what they thought they knew about violent rape — a stereotypical image of a stranger in the bushes with a knife. The alleged assailants were, in some cases, people they considered friends. They described trying to push it to the back of their minds, just wanting to get on with their lives. Or they blamed themselves for drinking too much, or for failing to protect themselves.
Wright was by no means immune to self-doubt. But she did something that experts say is crucial. She told a supportive friend first.
“She kept saying, ‘It’s all my fault, I let this happen,’” says Kelly Rocco, who was an 18-year-old freshman when Wright pulled her out of the dorm hallway to tell her she had been raped.
Rocco drove Wright to White Plains Hospital, stayed with her for hours while nurses administered a rape kit and forensic exam, and took her out to eat. But Rocco admits that her first reaction was disbelief.
“I was trying to find questions to prove her wrong,” says Rocco, “because I was like, this doesn’t happen.”
A Lack of Support
Colleges rarely spend much time educating students on how to respond appropriately to a friend who has been sexually victimized, according to a follow-up Justice Department-funded report in 2002. It found that almost 60 percent of schools provided no response training at all to students. And when they did, they often directed it toward students who were residence hall advisers or security officers rather than the general student population. (Rocco says she received no rape awareness or response education during freshman orientation; Dominican College’s lawyer says both she and Wright did.)
Away from their parents from the first time, female college students tend to rely on the structure of a close-knit residence hall, a sports team, or a sorority; their friends’ response is crucial. To complicate matters, say on-campus advocates, accused and accuser may be separated by just a few degrees.
“If they do go forward and make a report, do they lose that group because of the so-called problems they are creating?” says Roberta Gibbons, a victim’s advocate on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota, describing the concerns of students she encounters. “Or are they going to split that group?”
When Christine Carter met this dilemma as a transfer student at Towson University in Baltimore, she chose to tell the group that a newcomer — a friend of a friend — had reached into her pants while she was sleeping. To her utter mortification, they laughed and said she must have imagined it.
“I was the butt of my friends’ jokes,” said Carter. “Before we’d go out, my friends would say, ‘Oh Christine, don’t drink too much. You’ll sexually assault yourself.’”
They stopped laughing at her only when the same man did it again, Carter said, to another friend in the group. This time, Carter reported to police that she had been assaulted, and says she encouraged her friend to do the same. The man agreed to serve probation on assault charges but did not plead guilty, according to Maryland court records.
As for Wright, she didn’t even know whether she was accusing friends or strangers at first. Her family would accuse both, in the end. Their lawsuit alleges that Terrell Hill, a Dominican College student whom she knew, was one of two men who physically led her from her dorm room to an all-male floor. There, the school’s hallway surveillance camera catches two Dominican College students, Isaiah Lynch and Richard Fegins, along with Fegins’ visiting cousin Kenneth Thorne — none of them friends of Wright’s — going in and out of the room, according to documents obtained from the Orangetown, NY, Police Department. The lawsuit alleges that all three raped her, and adds the detail from the surveillance video that they were snatching high-fives from onlookers as they went. At one point, Fegins emerged from the room holding up a sign that read “I WANT TO HAVE SEX,” signed Megan Wright — an artifact the school gave to police, along with part of the video, and information about the students in it.
Hill says that he has been unfairly accused for being in the “wrong place and wrong time.” He strongly denies the family’s allegations that he conspired in Wright’s assault.
She was a friend, he says: “My friends — and our friends — know that I’m not that kind of person.”
Like Hill, the other three were never charged with a crime, and through their lawyers, they declined to comment for this story. In court documents, they deny raping Wright. Lynch told police that he was in the dorm room surfing the Web. He says he left when he saw Wright kissing Thorne. When he returned, he says, she was putting her shirt back on. He denies having any sexual contact with her. Police dropped the investigation — and the Rockland County District Attorney declined to prosecute — after a handwriting expert said that Wright’s signature was on the sign, and her sexual assault examination showed no trace of sperm. Nonetheless, a nurse’s notation says that her vagina was visibly cut, swollen, and red.
Wright broke down when she first saw the video, according to Orangetown police department notes. Her mother says it showed her things Wright hadn’t known, and that she began having flashbacks.
The Campus Judiciary Process
At the center of many schools’ stated policy of responding to sexual assault is some form of disciplinary or judicial hearing process, like the one Dominican describes in its handbook. The Campus Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, a 1992 amendment to the Clery Act, mandates that schools publish policies for preventing and addressing sexual assault, including “procedures for on-campus disciplinary action.”
Schools don’t always comply. Justice Department reviews in response to 26 complaints in the past decade found that four institutions — Eastern Michigan University, St Mary’s College (Indiana), Clemson University, and Salem International University (West Virginia) — violated the Clery Act by failing to have or disclose policies for sex offenses. Several other on- and off-campus service providers surveyed by the Center reported that their local colleges had no policy for adjudicating sexual assault on campus.
Victims’ advocates say these formalized disciplinary procedures serve as a vehicle for colleges to remove suspected predators from their campuses, and have different standards than a criminal justice system that rarely prosecutes rape. A failure to have disciplinary procedures in place constitutes a fundamental barrier to justice on campus, advocates say.
Even so, students are unlikely to get as far as a campus hearing, even at apparently well-intentioned colleges.
Each year the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women awards grants to colleges to combat on-campus stalking and sexual and domestic violence against women. Many schools use this money to boost reporting and improve adjudication of rape on campus, to mixed results. During fall 2008, the most recent semi-annual reporting period available, 26 institutions whose progress reports the Justice Department provided to the Center reported only 25 sexual assault cases that resulted in any finding in a campus disciplinary proceeding. Another 16 were dismissed before they ever reached that point, with more than half of the dismissals at the victim’s own request. The schools had a combined female student population of about 270,000 the previous year. By way of comparison, if that Justice Department-funded study was correct, an estimated 6,450 of these students were actually sexually victimized during that six-month period.
The reports give little clue as to why so few on-campus resolutions were reached. But students interviewed by the Center described encountering processes that seemed intimidating, unsympathetic, or unlikely to result in punishment for the accused students. Anna Babler, a former student at Arizona State University, says a judicial affairs administrator in 2008 urged her to “speak up” against a fraternity with a history of rape reports, without assuring that her name would be kept confidential, or telling her precisely how the campus process would work. (An ASU representative said that privacy rules prevented it from commenting on specific cases, but that it takes sexual assault reports seriously.) Mary Chico, a former student at Miami University in Ohio, describes meeting with a school official in 2001 who made her feel that she was at fault by asking her questions like what she was wearing when she was assaulted. Chico believes a dean pushed her to take a medical leave from the school, accusations the school has dismissed as “baseless.”
Carter, of Security On Campus Inc., said that colleges and universities dissipate students’ confidence in their adjudication systems by failing to coordinate between offices, or by failing to provide access to a single, well-trained point person who can lead them through the process. “The most pervasive problem for students victimized by sexual assault on campuses,” he says, “is a lack of support structures for victims to come forward.”
Title IX, the anti-discrimination statute, is best known for its application to women’s sports, but the regulations implementing it require grievance procedures that provide for “prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints.” The law leaves room for interpretation, and in 2001 the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights issued additional guidance. If a school knows — or even if it should know — of possible sexual harassment, including assault, it must take “immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred and take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end any harassment, eliminate a hostile environment if one has been created, and prevent harassment from occurring again.” It is also this guidance that mentions that schools must designate a coordinator for Title IX responsibilities — the point person Carter describes.
A school’s failures to comply with Title IX can place daunting obstacles in the paths of students who wish to pursue disciplinary proceedings. A measure of the problem came in the Center’s review of 214 investigations in the past decade by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights into suspected Title IX violations involving sex discrimination in admissions or grading, as well as cases of harassment and assault. The Center found 16 cases involving allegations of perceived institutional barriers to pursuing sexual assault complaints. According to its own published guidelines, the Office of Civil Rights avoids finding schools in violation of the statute when it can find a way to cooperate with schools to fix problems, but it found institutions with no coordinator, no clear policy for handling sexual assault complaints, or alleged victims who were not informed of their right to pursue disciplinary complaints.
The roadblocks to campus justice, however, are often more subtle than that, says Diane Rosenfeld, a Harvard law professor who specializes in Title IX law. They can come in the form of a dean’s apparently innocuous suggestion to get counseling, or take a semester off, rather than risking a campus judicial process that won’t succeed.
“As I see it,” she says, “that’s a way of silencing victims and keeping these cases quiet.”
Troubling Tale at SUNY New Paltz
In December 2007, Elizabeth Ryan, who was finishing up her first semester on the New Paltz campus of the State University of New York, was summoned to speak to the Dean dean of Students students in the austere Haggerty Administration Building. The dean’s office had just learned she filed a police report alleging that she was raped by another freshman at an off-campus fraternity house. (Elizabeth Ryan is not her real name; she has asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy.)
Ryan says she immediately knew that what had happened to her was rape. The nurse who administered the rape kit, and others who heard her story, seemed shocked, Ryan recalls, by the trauma that she conveyed, and by the bruises on her breasts. But when she told the story to the dean, a veteran student affairs administrator named Linda Eaton, it was Ryan’s turn to be shocked. One of her options was to “do nothing,” she says the dean told her.
Even now, Ryan, 20, has a hard time rationalizing that response. “If I wanted to do nothing, I would have kept my mouth shut,” she says. “I wouldn’t have gone to my RA, or to the campus police, or to the New Paltz police, or to the hospital. I wouldn’t have said a word to anybody right from the start,” she says. “It was insulting. This guy had just raped me … and that’s her answer?”
Insulting or not, the dean’s response — which Eaton does not dispute — may have been illegal, say lawyers familiar with Title IX. “You never say your option is to do nothing, because the institution doesn’t have the option of doing nothing,” says Kate Clifford, a partner in the law firm Schuster & Clifford, LLP, which provides training to universities on compliance with the anti-discrimination law.
Investigation is the school’s first responsibility, regardless of whether a student demands it, or whether police are conducting a criminal investigation, according to the 2001 Office of Civil Rights guidance.
The dean went on to list other options, each no more satisfying to Ryan. Dean Eaton could bring the alleged attacker into her office, to let him know that what he had done was wrong. Or the two freshmen could participate in a mediation.
Though not illegal, mediation for resolving sexual assault cases is strongly discouraged in official recommendations from the Justice and Education Departments. Eaton denies pushing mediation, citing school statistics showing that no student has chosen to resolve a sexual assault case through mediation in the past decade. But the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights guidance calls it inappropriate “even on a voluntary basis.”
“You never, ever, ever have any kind of mediation in sexual assault cases,” says Clifford, echoing what counselors, advocates, and lawyers told the Center repeatedly, explaining that mediation presumes an equality of power that is missing in domestic and sexual violence cases.
Ryan felt discouraged from pursuing the two options she most wanted — campus judicial proceedings and criminal charges. “She made everything I’d wanted to do seem … like a hassle,” she says, referring to Eaton, and recalling that the dean cautioned her that campus hearings would be difficult for her, and that they would have to wait until the following semester, after winter break. The dean told her to take time to think about it, and come back again the next day.
Instead, Ryan canceled their meeting and withdrew from SUNY, convinced that her school would not help her.
“How could you not want someone who did this off your campus?” asks Ryan. “Why would she be pushing mediation, pushing me to do nothing? It finally dawned on me that this was about protecting the school’s image.”
In an interview with the Center, Dean Eaton said she gave Ryan the same standard list of available options she gives to all alleged victims. The dean did not remember the student saying she wanted a campus hearing.
“Part of not re-victimizing the victim is to lay out all of the options that are available to them,” says Eaton, who adds that she could not have predicted Ryan’s response. By giving options, “you’re giving them the power and the choice to make a decision in terms of what they would like to do.”
Eaton seemed unaware that Title IX obligated an investigation into sexual assault reports, and said she had not been trained on the legislation. The school’s director of media relations, Eric Gullickson, stresses that the school was in compliance with Title IX, and says that coordination was left to the associate athletic director because “[o]ur work with Title IX has been with respect to athletic participation by women.”
New Paltz maintains that faculty and staff did what they could to keep Ryan safe, by issuing a no-contact order between the two students and directing her to counseling, and could do nothing else without her participation and her continued attendance at the school. Eaton vigorously denies the contention that the school was more concerned with its own reputation than with a student’s well-being.
“I get every single police report that’s initiated on this campus. I contact students. I reach out to them,” says Eaton. “I feel as though if I had an alternative motive, I wouldn’t have reached out to her.”
Few of the roughly 8,000 students at SUNY New Paltz have admitted an interest in pursuing disciplinary proceedings in sex offenses, according to statistics the school provided to the Center. Since 1998, only six students have reported a sexual assault to the office responsible for initiating those proceedings. Of those, three cases resulted in a campus hearing. Just one punishment has resulted from a sexual assault case — an expulsion in 2002.
From the Justice Department-funded study, a college the size of SUNY New Paltz could estimate that more than 1,700 of its female students were victims of rape or attempted rape in that 11-year period.
Overcoming Perceptions, Fighting Roadblocks
Segawa, president of the student affairs administrators group, and dean of students at the University of Puget Sound, says that college and university administrators are increasingly aware of perceived roadblocks for students reporting rape and are doing what they can to address them.
“Most institutions want to be very responsive and supportive, but there may be reasons that perception exists,” he says.
Segawa suggested that a lack of visibility of the available resources and ignorance of the avenues available for students accounts for some of that perception. He disputes the idea that it is in the interest of the school to keep barriers in place in order to keep rape statistics from going up. Puget Sound often reports zero sex offenses, an “absurd, very low number” he has trouble explaining to parents. “The reality is we know it isn’t zero, but we don’t have another number we can give them.”
Colleges and universities’ efforts to produce more accurate numbers also can backfire.
Char Kopchick, assistant dean of students at Ohio University, says that her university’s efforts at increasing sexual assault reporting rates several years ago achieved just the opposite effect. The university put in place a mandatory reporting requirement — meaning that all faculty and staff were obligated to report a sexual assault to police, unless they were counselors or health care providers specifically bound by privacy rules. As a result, Kopchick says, students stopped showing up.
“Now they know there’s going to be an investigation,” she says. “What we find with a lot of survivors, they’re not ready for that. … Sometimes it takes a person six months before they’re willing to go forward. Sometimes they never want to do anything.”
Carter, the public policy director of Security On Campus Inc., cautions schools against tipping the balance too far toward either ignoring victims’ wishes by pushing them to take action, or, conversely, blithely assuming a victim would not wish to move forward with campus disciplinary charges without giving her all the information needed to make a decision.
“If victims know they’ll be supported and believed, they’ll come forward,” Carter says. He points to successes at places like Harvard, where a coordinated effort to improve response to rape victims following a 2003 investigation of alleged Title IX violations resulted in a distinct rise in rape reports. “If they want counseling or to pursue disciplinary action or criminal charges and the school supports them, they’ll do it,” he adds.
Struggling with the Aftermath
Elizabeth Ryan, who now lives back at home with her mother, still struggles with panic attacks, and has had a hard time regaining her footing since leaving SUNY New Paltz.
Her alleged attacker, meanwhile, is back in New Paltz living the life of a typical college student. Visited by a reporter one Thursday last fall, he was just getting out of bed at 3 p.m. to make himself bacon. To this day, he says, he has never told his parents or his frat brothers that New Paltz town police questioned him about the reported rape. The investigation is still officially open, but inactive. Detective David Dugatkin, who was assigned to the case, says that after speaking to both alleged victim and perpetrator, there were enough “ambiguities” about the issue of consent that he referred the case to the District Attorney’s office rather than making an immediate arrest. Ryan did not pursue it. Kevin Harp, the Ulster County assistant district attorney who spoke with Ryan, said he invited her to meet with him, but that he never heard back from her. He says he presented her a realistic account of the steps involved if she decided to pursue charges, and said he did nothing to discourage her.
The accused student firmly maintains that sex was consensual, adding that he kissed Ryan goodbye at the end of the night. He thinks the cops believed him. “At first I was nervous and scared, because nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” he says. “But after I was questioned by the police, nobody ever contacted me about it again, and that was it.” His only gripe, he says, is with the school. He believes it was unfair of SUNY New Paltz to issue him a no-contact order forbidding him from entering the dorm where Ryan lived. After all, nobody from the school ever bothered to ask him what happened.
That’s a complaint his accuser shares.
In Megan Wright’s case, it appeared initially that the school would investigate. Dean John Prescott met her within half an hour, was polite, asked questions, and suggested that Wright receive counseling. He said that someone from the school would watch the surveillance video, leaving the impression that he would take action.
As they walked out of the office and peered into a sea of young male faces, Wright’s mother remembers thinking, “Is it you? Is it you?”
But the lawsuit contends that instead of investigating, the school left the case entirely in the hands of a local police detective, a Title IX violation. The family alleges that the detective, James Nawoichyk, a part-time instructor at Dominican College, was “hopelessly conflicted,” and failed to conduct a thorough investigation. The police log shows that before closing the investigation around the time of Wright’s death, the detective did not question Fegins or Thorne, who had hired lawyers, or inspect the dorm room where the alleged rape had taken place.
Nawoichyk declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit against Dominican, but Orangetown Police Chief Kevin Nulty has told a local newspaper, The Journal News, “The department stands behind the officer and the integrity of the investigation.”
Never once in four meetings Wright’s mother had with Dean Prescott over the summer did the dean mention the possibility of the sort of on-campus judicial proceedings outlined in the handbook and required by law.
Unable to get any comfort from her school, or assurance that she would be safe from the alleged attackers, Wright did not return to the college in the fall. On her last visit, says McGrath, her daughter tried to see the college president, but was told she was unavailable. “They were making her feel like she wasn’t worth it — the police, the school. The people that you think you’re going to be able to turn to, to make things right,” says McGrath.
The lawyer for Dominican College, Semprevivo, says without elaborating that contrary to the allegations laid out in the complaint, the school did investigate. He says the school cannot comment on disciplinary action against students, because of privacy concerns. Certainly, Wright was never asked to testify in any hearing. Rocco, Wright’s friend, says no one from the school asked her any questions. Hill, the student accused by Wright’s family of conspiring in the incident, says he was never questioned or disciplined by the school. He returned to the school the following fall before dropping out for financial reasons.
The other two Dominican College students withdrew, too, for reasons that are unclear. One of them, Lynch, transferred to Ramapo College, where he plays on the basketball team.
In June 2008, the New York Office of the Attorney General, after an investigation initiated at the urging of the family’s powerhouse lawyer Gloria Allred, fined Dominican College $20,000 for fraudulently under-reporting crime statistics. Among other things, the school had failed to take appropriate account of Wright’s rape report. As part of a settlement, the college agreed to appoint a Title IX coordinator.
By the time she learned that criminal charges would probably not pan out, the light had left Wright’s eyes, her mother says. She had stopped singing around the house and goofing off like she used to. In the modest home where her daughter lived and died, McGrath sits beneath an outsize photo of Wright as a baby, and beside others of her in a prom dress, and as a kid — photos she talks to before bed.
“No wonder why so many girls don’t come forward. They see what happens. They see,” says McGrath, “how they are attacked all over again.”
Staff writer Kristen Lombardi contributed to this article.