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The Sexual Assault Crisis on American Campuses

21 minute read

Nestled at the base of a mountain in the northern Rockies, the University of Montana in Missoula is one of the nation’s most picturesque campuses and home to nearly 15,000 students. Since its founding in 1893, the school has produced 28 Rhodes scholars. Notable alumni include former Senator Mike Mansfield and All in the Family star Carroll O’Connor. The university’s football team, the Grizzlies, has turned out a slew of NFL stars. It is, in short, the kind of place that makes its alumni cheer and serves as a symbol of pride throughout the state.

But something changed for Missoula on May 1, 2012, when Thomas Perez came to town. Perez, then the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, stood before a press conference to announce a federal investigation into the university, city police and county attorney. “In order to learn, all students must feel safe and must feel supported,” Perez told the gathering. There was a problem in Missoula: “In the past three years, there have been at least 80 reported rapes.” Practically overnight, Missoula went from being the home of one of the nation’s most respected public universities to a place where young women were victimized in horrible, violent attacks–or, as news coverage began describing it, “America’s rape capital.”

The nickname, however, has it wrong. Calling Missoula the rape capital is as misleading as it is ugly. The University of Montana isn’t a bizarre sexual-assault outlier in higher education. Instead, it is fairly average. The truth is, for young women, particularly those who are 18 or 19 years old, just beginning their college experience, America’s campuses are hazardous places. Recent research shows that 1 in 5 women is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault during college. “If you knew your son had a 20% chance of being held up at gunpoint, you’d think twice before dropping your kid off,” says Vice President Joe Biden, who has made awareness about campus sexual assault a signature issue at the White House. “Well, my God, you drop a daughter off, it’s 1 in 5 she could be raped or physically abused? It is just outrageous.”

The numbers on campus rape and sexual assault are so disturbing that it can be tempting to look for a flaw, to assume they are inflated by some overly broad definition–misunderstandings or morning-after regrets. They aren’t. It’s true that the language can be confusing. The FBI now defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” That reflects a revision by the Obama Administration in 2012. Earlier language referred to sex inflicted “forcibly and against her will.” The newer “without the consent” language is meant to include victims who are incapacitated by alcohol or cannot otherwise give consent.

The broader term sexual assault used in the 1-in-5 statistic includes rape along with other forms of unwanted sexual contact, such as forced fondling or kissing–but more than half the assaults reported meet the strict definition of rape. Nearly three-quarters of those victims were incapacitated, underscoring the role of alcohol in campus assaults.

The 1-in-5 number shouldn’t be taken to mean that young American men are a horde of violent rapists. The best research suggests that a large proportion of the worst offenses are committed by a relatively small group of students–sexual predators who find college an alarmingly auspicious environment both for targeting women and escaping punishment.

No campus is immune from concerns about sexual misconduct–a point driven home May 1 when the Obama Administration released a list of 55 colleges under federal scrutiny over how they handle sexual-assault complaints. The roster includes big public institutions like Ohio State along with Ivies Harvard and Princeton.

So rather than focus on Missoula as an outrageous oddity, it is more productive to see it as a starting point for fixing a shameful situation. Over the past two years, federal investigators have collaborated–and sometimes clashed–with school and local officials. Together, they have identified specific measures that students, colleges and local cops can take to head off assaults and make sure that when attacks do take place, the victims are properly treated. Some are as obvious as requiring school employees to report any crimes; others are as simple as arming young women–and young men–with clever tricks to derail the predators. If Missoula has been tarnished, unfairly or not, with the “rape capital” nickname, it may well be redeemed by its legacy as a test lab for helping answer the question, What will it take to make women safe at college?

Missoula’s journey into the uncomfortable spotlight began late in 2011, in the middle of finals, when the university announced the appointment of an outside investigator to look into whether two female students had been drugged and raped by members of the football team. Then another young woman told the local newspaper, the Missoulian, that several football players had raped her the year before. (No one was charged, though police said they informed the football coach.) A few weeks later, a running back for the Grizzlies was arrested for raping a woman who, according to the affidavit of probable cause, said she woke up “to find her pants and underwear pulled down” and the assailant having intercourse with her. He later pleaded guilty and is serving a 10-year sentence.

The cases kept coming. In February an exchange student from Saudi Arabia fled the country before police could question him about two alleged sexual assaults on the same night; the dean of students had told him the school launched an investigation. Then in March, the Grizzlies’ quarterback Jordan Johnson was suspended from the team after an accusation of rape; he was acquitted of criminal charges at trial. Yet another rape victim told the Missoulian she believed her report to the health center would result in an investigation. But the opposite is true, since health-center records are kept confidential. The outside investigation launched by university president Royce Engstrom concluded that there had been nine cases of sexual assault at Missoula from September 2010 to December 2011.

Missoula’s pattern is typical. One of the most consistent truths is how few victims, especially college students, report these attacks. A recent study showed that only 12% of rapes of college women were reported to law enforcement. Another study showed that roughly a third of college sexual-assault victims said they reported their assault to a counselor affiliated with the university. High-profile incidents often increase awareness and motivate victims to come forward. So when college officials try to shine a light on the problem–as with Engstrom’s decision to engage an outside investigator–the result can be a wave of allegations that makes a campus suddenly seem less safe. That’s a nasty surprise for students, parents–and admissions offices.

But there should be no surprise, because the scope of the problem has been evident for three decades. It was in 1987 that Mary Koss, a psychology professor at Kent State, released a landmark study on sexual assault. Koss surveyed more than 3,000 women and 2,000 men on 32 college campuses. She found that 1 in 4 women had been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.

There was no way to reconcile that number with the stereotypical view of sexual attacks, in which a knife-wielding rapist jumps out from a dark corner. Most women, it became clear, knew their attackers, so the focus turned to so-called date rape. But much of that response centered on the idea of “No means no,” which, while critical for raising awareness about consent, can sometimes reinforce its own stereotype. The very phrase date rape has a way of conjuring the image of two drunk teenagers fumbling around in the dark until a testosterone-fueled adolescent male goes too far, a moment spun out of control. As it turns out, experts say, many such moments don’t happen by accident; the perpetrators often create the opportunity for the assault.

That piece of the puzzle began to fall into place in 2002, when a respected study of the male population at the University of Massachusetts concluded that only 6.4% of those college men reported committing acts in line with the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. Researchers didn’t ask men outright if they had committed rape but instead asked questions about their sexual encounters.

A crucial finding: among the relatively small group of perpetrators, more than half were repeat offenders, averaging nearly six rapes each. Other studies of young men have reached similar conclusions. In short, most guys are good guys. But the ones who are bad aren’t just straying over a line. Instead, they show a pattern of violent sexual behavior.

To understand why a campus can be a dangerous place for a young woman, it helps to watch something called the Frank video. It is a re-enactment of a conversation between a University of Massachusetts researcher and an actor portraying a study respondent. The conversation takes many familiar elements of campus life–the newfound freedom of incoming students, the fraternity scene, the binge drinking at private parties fueled by alcohol age limits in restaurants and bars–and casts them in a chilling light.

Here’s what a young college woman is up against: “We’d be on the lookout for the good-looking girls, especially the freshmen,” says the study participant. “They were easy prey, and they wouldn’t know anything about drinking or how much alcohol they could handle, so you know they wouldn’t know anything about our techniques.” The young man goes on to explain those techniques: “We’d invite them to the party … We’d get them drinking right away. We’d have kegs [of beer], but we always had some kind of punch also, you know, our own home brew. We’d make it with a real sweet juice and just pour in all kinds of alcohol.” The man goes on to describe removing the woman’s clothes. She tries pushing him off; he pushes her back down and uses his arm across her chest to pin her down while having intercourse.

College party culture takes particular advantage of young women who lack experience with alcohol–an idea that is entrenched on campuses and in popular culture. Back in 1978, before the spotlight was pointed on campus sexual assault, the film Animal House portrayed one of its toga-clad frat boys making out with a girl until she passes out. A devil appears on one shoulder encouraging him to have sex with the girl; an angel on the other shoulder urges him not to, and the good angel wins. More than three decades later, popular culture still accommodates the idea–with implications for both men and women–that it’s O.K. for men to trick women into having sex, that reluctance is just a barrier to be overcome through perseverance and guile. It is a theme found everywhere from song lyrics to sitcoms.

Given the cultural tolerance and considering that so many assaults in college involve acquaintances or even boyfriends and girlfriends, perhaps it is no surprise that many women don’t immediately understand what has happened to them. According to a 2007 study for the National Institute of Justice, roughly a third of victims surveyed who did not report their assault to law enforcement said it was because they were unsure whether what they had experienced was a crime and whether harm was intended.

The first big government push to address campus sexual assault came in 1990 when Congress passed the Clery Act. The law was named for Jeanne Clery, a freshman at Lehigh University who was raped and murdered in her dorm in 1986. The law requires colleges and universities to publish annual reports on security policies and campus crime statistics, including sex offenses. The act also specifies that schools must publish information about sexual-assault policies and programs. Critics say Clery has not been successful, partly due to loopholes. A 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that 77% of two- and four-year colleges and universities reported an implausible zero rapes in 2006, due in part to tactics like miscoding acquaintance rape as “nonforcible” and excluding rapes at off-campus parties.

The Obama Administration has employed a more muscular approach. Most people know Title IX as the 1972 law that combats gender discrimination in college sports. The Administration has turned it into a weapon in the fight against rape. In April 2011, the Department of Education sent a letter to colleges and universities warning that a failure to adequately address sexual assault violated Title IX and put them at risk of losing federal funding. The warning–combined with the efforts of student activists willing to file Title IX complaints–rocked the academic world. It was clear that, sooner or later, a college would find itself in the federal crosshairs. That school turned out to be Montana.

Even for a university the size of Montana, meeting the demands of the federal investigators was difficult. In October 2012 the university tapped federal grant money and hired Kim Brown Campbell, a local with experience in sexual-assault counseling, to coordinate its response. A year after the investigation began, the departments of Education and Justice reached a joint resolution with the university governing measures moving forward. By that point, however, changes were well under way. Working with the federal government, the university has overhauled nearly every aspect of its systems for handling sexual assault.

It started with the easy stuff, including a video tutorial about rape myths, school policies and resources on campus that students were required to watch before registering for spring-semester classes. The university also made it mandatory for all its employees, excluding counselors and medical professionals, to report any information they learn about a sexual assault to a Title IX coordinator. This ensures that all complaints go to one place and trigger an investigation by the Title IX office–an approach meant to guarantee that every claim will be investigated, no matter how seemingly trivial. (If a student is found responsible, the dean of students determines the sanctions.) Another new program, Don’t Cancel That Class, invites professors to use free blocks of time to ask someone knowledgeable about sexual violence to teach the class.

And the reformers have found a role for men to play. “For the first couple of decades we talked about sexual assault, there were two characters: a potential perpetrator and a victim,” says Dorothy Edwards, former director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky, considered a leader among schools on best practices. “The only message for men was don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t be a rapist. It took different forms, like ‘No means no’ or ‘Consent is sexy,’ but if you are like the vast majority of college men who do not rape, you’ve now heard for the 17th time, Don’t be a rapist. If that’s your only message in prevention, you are alienated and defensive–of course you are! This is about acknowledging the third character in the story, the bystander.”

With grant money from the Department of Justice, Missoula launched a cutting-edge bystander-awareness program designed by experts at the University of New Hampshire. It helps students come up with realistic strategies to intervene in sexual assaults before they happen–by trying to distract or stop a potential perpetrator or getting a potential victim (like an intoxicated girl) away from a risky situation.

“You can’t go up to that group of frat members and say, ‘Next time you see your buddy taking a drunk girl upstairs, you better say, Stop! No! Real men don’t take drunk girls upstairs!'” says Edwards. Using a real example from a group she taught, Edwards tells of a fraternity brother who saw a friend taking a girl upstairs, and then called up and said, “Hey, dude, your car’s getting towed.” After the guy came down to check, he invited him to play beer pong as a distraction. Diversions like spilling a drink on someone or initiating a group activity are among the strategies that are talked about in bystander training.

For the most part, the new ideas and accountability–Missoula agreed to an anonymous survey that will assess how measures are working–have been welcomed by school officials and students. So far, campus officials and student leaders are encouraged by the fact that reports of sexual misconduct to the dean of students and the Title IX investigation office have grown, suggesting that women feel they can safely come forward.

Some Missoula students say they see a shift in tone at the university too. “Things are slowly starting to change. You still encounter resistance, rape-culture issues. It hasn’t gone away, but the university is taking great steps,” says Jan Roddy, a junior and a coordinator at the student-run Women’s Resource Center.

Past the edge of campus, things have not gone as smoothly. Part of the federal investigation scrutinized how city cops and county officials have handled campus assaults. In particular, the county prosecutor has not reacted well to Washington’s feedback about how to do a better job.

“It’s beyond belief that we would be accused of this,” said Missoula County attorney Fred Van Valkenburg. Van Valkenburg, a round, bespectacled, pro-choice Obama supporter who employs mostly female attorneys, was referring to the Department of Justice’s contention that his office has a pattern of discriminating against female victims. His response: “No way … They are all progressive, liberal-thinking people. They are not going to sit by and watch the staff discriminate against women.”

Justice investigators based that conclusion on interviews with victims and an analysis showing that from 2008 to 2012, only 16% of sexual-assault cases in Missoula were prosecuted. In the Justice Department’s proposed settlement agreement in December 2013, the agency detailed possible measures that included new staff positions (a sexual-assault investigator and an in-house victim advocate) along with sexual-assault training for Van Valkenburg’s team. Van Valkenburg says the city already has a victim’s-advocate office with over eight employees and that some of his attorneys have already received sexual-assault training and will continue to do so.

For Van Valkenburg, who will retire at the end of the year after 16 years as the Missoula County attorney, the fight is an emotional one, with his legacy at stake. He says his prosecution rate is not out of step with national averages. He also contends that the Department of Justice relied on erroneous hearsay in its scathing findings letter, which included the comment from one attorney to the mother of a 5-year-old rape victim, “Boys will be boys.” “People in this office don’t think like that,” he says.

Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate with the Justice Department and is suing on the grounds that it doesn’t have the authority to investigate his office. But even friends in town wish he would stop resisting. “I know Fred believes himself to be right, but at some point he’s going to have to choose between being right and moving forward,” says Missoula Mayor John Engen. For their part, the mayor and the chief of police have cooperated with Justice, implementing trauma training for police officers, creating a less intimidating interview room for sexual-assault victims and inviting trained counselors to participate in interviews with victims. All told, the city allocated roughly $350,000 in its 2015 fiscal year budget to cover the changes.

Will the kind of steps being taken at Missoula actually make women safer? Few doubt that educating students about the sexual-assault threat and empowering them through bystander-awareness programs can help head off some assaults. But some victims and advocates say colleges need to get tougher on the perpetrators. Expulsion could be a powerful deterrent, but schools are still reluctant to expel young men over sexual conduct, say the co-founders of Know Your IX, a grassroots student movement that educates students about Title IX. “When someone who rapes is suspended for a day, it sends the message to the school community that sexual violence and relationship violence just isn’t that big of a deal,” says co-founder Dana Bolger, who says she was raped at Amherst College in 2011.

But while zero tolerance may sound good in principle, it can be disconcerting to male students–and their parents–who fear that zealous colleges will side with alleged victims in murky circumstances. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are schools in the country that don’t expel people when they ought to. I’m also convinced there are schools that expel people when they shouldn’t,” says Matthew Kaiser, a criminal-defense attorney who has represented students accused of sexual assault at colleges and universities.

To properly protect accused students, Kaiser says, the standard for sexual assault should match the higher standard of proof applied to most other student violations, the accused should be entitled to representation by a lawyer or advocate and sanctions should reflect varying offenses. A student who sexually assaults a girl who is unconscious, he says, should receive a harsher punishment than one where the situation was ambiguous.

For the Obama Administration, the next step is widening the battle beyond Missoula. To kick this off, the White House released a report on April 29 outlining best practices for all schools. It called for some of the same measures undertaken at Montana, such as recommendations for a bystander-awareness program and advice on how to partner with the community and local law enforcement. It emphasized the value of annual campus surveys to hold colleges accountable. The White House hopes to make these mandatory through legislative or executive action, though that is anything but certain.

Without federal action, universities are unlikely to conduct the kind of anonymous surveys that would accurately reveal the breadth of their sexual-assault problem. The reason is fear of bad publicity and what it could mean for their college rankings and their bottom line. If some schools conduct surveys and others don’t, the schools that do the right thing may end up looking less safe than their competitors. Mandatory surveys would allow parents to compare accurate data and put all schools on equal footing.

Ratcheting up the pressure, the Administration then released its May 1 list of the 55 schools under federal scrutiny for possible Title IX violations. The goal: signal to schools that their reputations will suffer if they fail to address sexual assault.

But beyond the public shaming, there isn’t much more the Department of Education can do. Not all the schools listed will be found in violation, and only some will enter into a settlement agreement as Missoula did. Technically, the department can withhold federal funding for Title IX violations. Yet that punishment is seen as so severe, it’s considered unlikely the Administration would mete it out, say members of Congress.

The bottom line: the White House’s proposed reforms don’t have teeth without mandatory climate surveys that would supply honest data on campus safety, or an ability to levy fines. Congressional action is needed, and for student activists and victims, those hopes are riding on efforts from Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut–the same trio that recently worked on bills to address sexual assault in the military and has promised to work on campus assaults.

The three Senators and their staffs met recently to brainstorm and came up with more than a dozen ideas for measures to put in a campus-assaults bill. Gillibrand tells TIME that standout ideas so far include requiring climate surveys to give everyone, including prospective students and parents, an apples-to-apples comparison of schools and extending the statute of limitations on Title IX complaints beyond the current six months. McCaskill says she is also interested in examining fines, federal grants for prevention efforts and mandating that a trained interviewer meet victims early in the process. Both Gillibrand and McCaskill say they favor tougher sanctions against perpetrators and greater cooperation between colleges and local law enforcement. Whether a majority of their colleagues would agree is far from clear.

Back at Missoula, meanwhile, the mood is better. The spring air is throwing the Bitterroot Mountains in sharp relief, and some of the campus angst about the “rape capital” nickname has been supplanted by confidence that the university is on the right path. Graduation is set for May 17 in the school’s beloved Washington Grizzly Stadium. Some 3,600 students will move on, having received degrees and an unexpected crash course on the myths and realities of sexual assault. And this fall, a new class of freshmen will arrive in need of the same education.

(You can read an array of opinions on this issue in TIME’s special report: Ending Campus Sexual Assault)


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