How a Student Run Database is Changing the Way Universities Respond to Rape
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February 24, 2012 |
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Is there at least one full-time person working on campus sex-assault? May rape survivors report their attack confidentially and-or anonymously? Does the school's policy cover the sex assault of a man? Is emergency contraception available in the school health center?
These are the questions that students across the country are answering through the Campus Accountability Project, an open-access database designed for students, applicants and parents.
The database ranges in alphabetical order, beginning with the University of Alabama and ending with Yale University. It finds plenty of schools failing to present friendly survivor policies.
Of about 250 schools now in the database, 19 don't cover the cost of counseling after a sexual assault or rape, including such well-known universities as University of California-Berkeley and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Only 30 offer victims amnesty from punishment for offenses surrounding the assault, such as violating school policy against underage drinking. The fear of being punished for such offenses is considered a major deterrent to bringing a report.
A victim's sexual history and attire are allowable points of discussion in 108 schools in the database, including such highly ranked institutions as Williams College in Massachusetts; UNC-Chapel Hill; and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The database is produced by a partnership between Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER, based in New York City, and V-Day, the global anti-violence franchise that on Feb. 14 announced its largest campaign to date entitled One Billion Rising, which invites one billion women and their loved ones -- representative of the one billion female survivors of sexual violence worldwide -- to gather and dance in their communities on V-Day's 15th anniversary, February 14, 2013.
The database is housed on SAFER's website, and SAFER staff members vet each submission for accuracy. V-Day provides financial assistance and organizational support.
SAFER's data-gathering project provides a way to screen schools for a survivor-friendly campus culture. By showing stronger and weaker policies, it also provides a tool for student activists.
Survivor-friendly campus policies are considered a critical resource for victims, since a local justice system can lose jurisdiction when students graduate or for other reasons move away from campus. District attorneys can shy away from cases involving alcohol and drugs and a shortage of strong physical evidence.
Organizers intend that the database will eventually be integrated into college ranking systems to catch the eye of school administrators, parents and prospective students.
By providing an at-a-glance look at better and worse campus policies it's also meant to serve as a tool for activism.
Ninety-five percent of college rapes are not reported, according to a 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A major explanation for that, according to a 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, were institutional obstacles, including administrators and trustees who fear a strong rape-response policy will spur bad publicity.
Dan Wald, a SAFER board member, says that ignorance and a paucity of sexual-health education also accounts for historically poor treatment of rape survivors on campuses.
"Why would they [administrators] have any better education than many of us do?" he asked in a phone interview with Women's eNews.
Wald said he became involved with the organization following his own project to revise his college's policy. After a series of rapes on his campus at Ithaca University, Wald managed to work with campus safety groups to establish a system that allows victims the option of submitting a written document or audio or videotape recording instead of appearing at disciplinary proceedings, sparing a victim from appearing before his or her alleged attacker. Victims may also request the school provide an advocate to give legal and moral support through the proceedings.
Wald said those changes took about a year and a half to institute, requiring the approval of various school offices and boards, underscoring the serious commitments required to achieve such reforms.
Aiming for 400 Schools
Organizers plan to produce a report on the database once it amasses policies for 400 schools.
The project accepts rolling submissions but also works in bursts. In December, for instance, organizers launched their second push for students to review and submit policies during winter breaks, in between the pressures of semester deadlines.
Volunteers are asked to submit the entire text of their schools' policies and answer a probing 54-question survey. Do survivors have the option of reporting confidentially or anonymously? May a student's sexual history or clothing be discussed during disciplinary proceedings?
In 2009, SAFER published a preliminary report, based on 93 collected policies, which identified 11 basic components of a strong, survivor-friendly policy. These included amnesty for victims who may have been violating other school prohibitions during an assault or rape.
Another element: student input into the formation of a campus rape-response policy.
SAFER's database can assist students by showing the array of school policies and the questions that advocates can keep in mind as they push for reforms.
Last spring, Vice President Joe Biden released an open letter to universities explaining how federal law should be implemented in order to comply with Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. While Title IX has long been used to maintain equality in school sports, advocates are now actively broadening its application to the realm of sexual aggression.
At the same time as Biden was making that announcement, the Department of Education was investigating allegations that prominent universities -- including Yale, Princeton, Duke, Harvard Law School and the University of Virginia--violated Title IX by failing to counteract or combat environments of sexual hostility on campus.
In the past year, these institutions have updated or are now updating their sexual assault policies. Yale, for instance, expanded its definition of sexual assault to include sexually harassing speech and online communications and implemented a mandatory sexual misconduct training program for student organizations.
While top-down pressure from government institutions can compel colleges to abide by the law, the Campus Accountability Project works in reverse; giving students the resources and knowledge to jumpstart change.
Data from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education suggest that schools--whether due to advocacy pressures or their own reforms or some combination of both--are finding ways to encourage more victims to report sex assault.
In 2010 the number of students reporting on-campus sex assault rose to 2,933, up from a range of 2,605 to 2,738 between 2005 to 2009. This rise occurs as Bureau of Justice data is tracking an overall decline in U.S. rape.
This interpretation of the new numbers -- that more rape reporting means more reporting, not necessarily more assaults--is speculative, however. The higher figure in 2010 could simply indicate a worsening of the already severe problem of campus rape.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2000 estimated that a staggering number of women--between 20 percent and 25 percent -- were subject to rape or an attempted rape during college.
"I think that students still face resistance in even defining rape and consent," Sarah Martino, board chair of SAFER, said in an e-mail interview. "Even as schools respond to the call to create more comprehensive policies, there is a feeling that on the ground it is still treated like a 'he said/she said' discrepancy between 'regretful' young people."
Samantha Kimmey is a writer based in New York City.