A Closer Look At Sexual Assaults On Campus
4:02 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

How Campus Sexual Assaults Came To Command New Attention

Originally published on Wed August 13, 2014 9:27 am

Call it a sign of the times that right along with required writing core courses, incoming freshmen at most schools this fall will also face a mandatory crash course on the subject of sexual assault.

At a Rutgers University orientation, for example, every freshman sits through a dramatization of the campus party scene that is as real as it is raw. In the performance, a character, Jess, winds up in fellow student Ryan's room, resisting his advances. Ryan persists and gets increasingly angry and aggressive. The scene ends with the Jess character wailing, and with students in the audience wide-eyed and stunned.

"We get some students who are shocked and are saying, 'Does this really happen?' 'Is this really what it really looks like?' " says Brady Root, Rutgers' sexual assault prevention coordinator. "We're talking about a small number people that are behaving this way, but they're doing it a lot."

Collecting more precise data on sexual assault is one of the new requirements schools are facing. Felicia McGinty, Rutgers' vice chancellor for student affairs, says the new focus on sexual assault brings a lot of new pressure, but she says framing it as a national problem also gives schools more cover as they confront it.

"The good thing about where we are now is that it gives us permission to have these conversations openly. It's not the dirty little thing that we don't talk about anymore," McGinty says.

'The Darkness Is Over'

Indeed, in just a few years, the issue has gone from mostly whispers all the way up to the White House, where President Obama has made cracking down on sexual assault a priority.

"It's like it came out of the closet," says Bernice Sandler, who's known as the godmother of Title IX. "The darkness is over."

Sandler has watched the legislation she pushed 40 years ago evolve from a club used first against discrimination in hiring and admissions, then in sports inequity and now sexual assault. (Click here for a list of the 74 colleges with pending Title IX sexual violence investigations as of Aug. 6, 2014.)

"That's the power of Title IX. It's a hammer that's there, and schools know this and are busy scrambling to change their policies, and that makes me smile," Sandler says.

A range of policies are being revamped — from what counts as rape to how schools handle investigations. The crackdown comes three years after the government fired its first warning shot at higher ed with a so-called "Dear Colleague" letter that put schools on notice that failing to handle sexual assault properly could cost them their federal funding.

"That was a game changer. That was a tool that many of us used to show our universities like, 'Hey, you have to do this,' " says Annie Clark. She is one of several survivors-turned-activists who began to tell their stories publicly right around that time and to connect online.

"We could have Twitter conversations and use hashtag activism, and we could put [sample] complaints on Google docs, and it was a tipping point," she says.

But "we're not out of the bad old days" yet, as one federal official put it. Schools are still blaming victims and failing to punish perpetrators. Under new legislation, those kinds of schools would face new sanctions in addition to the so-called nuclear threat that Catherine Lhamon, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, recently warned schools she's not afraid to use.

"I will go to enforcement, and I am prepared to withhold federal funds," Lhamon said at a national conference at Dartmouth College last month. The school that was the inspiration for the movie Animal House and is one of dozens now under federal investigation had volunteered to host the so-called "summit on sexual assault."

"Sign of the times," acknowledged Dartmouth outgoing Dean Charlotte Johnson. But no school can afford to be daunted by the spotlight or the stakes. "Our sort-of tactic is to confront it head on," she says. "We want to make sure we get this right."

A Swinging Pendulum

It is an abrupt turn for many schools that have treated incidents of sexual assault as teachable moments and have resisted the idea that their valedictorians or star athletes could also be predators.

Gail Stern of Catharsis Productions, who runs sexual violence prevention programs for higher ed and the military, says there's something about colleges that has allowed the problem to quietly fester there longer than at other institutions.

"There is a real sense of 'this is our identity' — that they're the best, they're the smartest, they're the most virtuous. And what's so funny, I can't tell you how many times I've talked with an academic, and I've said, 'Oh, I do all this work with the military,' and they've said, 'Oh, the military. Well, they need it.' And I lose it! I'm like, 'You need it,' " she says.

Helping drive home the point: A growing number of alleged victims are winning civil suits against schools, and they are now more willing to sue. But on the other hand, so are the accused. Dozens of students who say they've been unfairly punished are now pushing back against what they say are kangaroo campus courts run amok.

"There is a certain hysteria in the air on this topic," says Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She says schools are running so scared of violating the civil rights of alleged victims that they end up violating the due process rights of defendants instead.

"It's really a surreal situation, I think. The government has effectively put our universities in an untenable situation where they're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't," Neal says.

Advocates say the pushback is no surprise as the pendulum swings and sexual assault goes from being swept under the rug to being treated as a serious crime.

Back at Rutgers, the skit dramatizing a sexual assault has been cited by the White House as the kind of program all schools should have, to increase awareness about the issue.

Incoming freshman Skyler Bolkin says it got her attention. "It's infuriating because no one is safe. I know that sounds a little paranoid, but, I mean, there's always a chance, and you do have to make sure that everyone is safe, because that's what friends do," she says.

Advocates say training students to be more active observers and changing campus culture are as critical to reducing campus sexual assault as schools cracking down on perpetrators and the government cracking down on schools.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Students returning to college this month will find new rules in place aimed at cracking down on campus sexual assault. Schools are under pressure to better deal with what's been called an epidemic. Today, NPR begins a series of stories about campus sexual assault. First, we have an overview from NPR's Tovia Smith about how an age-old problem is now commanding unprecedented attention. And a warning to listeners, this story includes a fictionalized depiction of an assault.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Call it a sign of the times that right along with required writing core courses, incoming freshman this fall will also face a mandatory crash course on the subject of sexual assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (As character) Let's go. Jump, jump, jump...

SMITH: At a Rutgers University orientation, student actors on stage in front of some 400 freshmen offer a dramatic take on the campus party scene that is as real as it is raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (As character) Talking filthies, man.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (As character) I am pumped for the night.

SMITH: As the party picks up, things quickly go bad when the character Ryan (ph) ends up in a room with Jess (ph), who's resisting his advances.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (As Jess)No, like, Ryan, can we just talk?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) You are so beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (As Jess) No, Ryan, stop. What are you doing? Like...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) OK, seriously, Jess, it's not a big deal.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (As Jess) OK, Ryan, you're hurting me. Can you just get...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) OK, Jess, honestly, why did you come up here?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (As Jess) Can we just go to the party?

SMITH: Ryan gets increasingly angry and aggressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (As Jess, crying) Ryan, please, if you let me go, I promise won't say anything.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan, yelling) Jess, you want this. Shut the [bleep] up.

SMITH: The scene ends with the Jess character wailing and students in the audience wide-eyed and stunned.

BRADY ROOT: Really, people are upset. People are angry. People don't know what to do now.

SMITH: Brady Root is Rutgers' sexual assault prevention coordinator.

ROOT: We get some students who are shocked and are saying, you know, does this really happen? Is this really what it looks like? And we're talking about a small number of people that are behaving this way, but they're doing it a lot.

SMITH: Collecting more precise data on sexual assault is one of the new requirements schools are facing. Rutgers' vice chancellor for student affairs Felicia McGinty says the new focus on sexual assault brings a lot of new pressure, but framing it as a national problem, she says, also gives schools more cover as they confront it.

FELICIA MCGINTY: The good thing about where we are now is that it gives us permission to have these conversations openly. It's not the dirty little thing that we don't talk about anymore.

SMITH: Indeed, in just a few years, the issue has gone from mostly whispers all the way up to the White House and President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We need to keep saying to anyone out there who's ever been assaulted, you are not alone. You will never be alone. We have your back.

BERNICE SANDLER: It's like it came out of the closet. The darkness is over.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Bernice Sandler, known as the godmother of Title IX, has watched the legislation she pushed 40 years ago evolve from a club used first against discrimination and hiring and admissions, then in sports equity and now in sexual assault.

SANDLER: That's the power of Title IX. It's a hammer that's there. And schools know this and are busy scrambling to change their policies, and that makes me smile.

SMITH: Schools are revamping everything from what counts as rape to who counts as a confidential adviser. And they're under the gun to make investigations and decisions more prompt and fair. The crackdown comes three years after the government fired its first warning shot at higher ed with the so-called dear colleague letter, putting schools on notice that failing to take sexual assault seriously violates Title IX and could cost them their federal funding.

ANNIE CLARK: That was a game changer. That was a tool that many of us used to show our universities, like, hey, you have to do this.

SMITH: Annie Clark was one of several survivors-turned-activists who began to tell their stories publicly right around that time and to connect online.

CLARK: We could have Twitter conversations and use hashtag activism. And we could put complaints on Google Docs, and it was a tipping point.

SMITH: But "we're not out of the bad ole' days yet," as one federal official put it. Schools are still blaming victims and failing to punish perpetrators. Under new legislation, those kinds of schools would face new sanctions in addition to the so-called nuclear threat that Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon recently warned she's not afraid to use.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CATHERINE LHAMON: I will go to enforcement. And I am prepared to withhold federal funds.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Lhamon was speaking this summer at a national conference at Dartmouth College, the school that was the inspiration for the movie "Animal House" and is one of dozens now under federal investigation, volunteered to host the so-called summit on sexual assault.

CHARLOTTE JOHNSON: Sign of the times. (Laughter).

SMITH: Charlotte Johnson is an outgoing dean at Dartmouth.

JOHNSON: Our sort of tactic is to confront it head-on. We want to make sure we get this right.

SMITH: It is an abrupt turn for many schools who've treated incidents of sexual assault as teachable moments and have resisted the idea that their valedictorians or star athletes could also be predators. Gail Stern, who runs sexual violence prevention programs for higher ed and the military, says there's something about colleges that's allowed the problem to quietly fester there longer than at other institutions.

GAIL STERN: There's a real sense of this is our identity, that they're the best. They're the smartest. They're the most virtuous. And, I mean, what's so funny - I can't tell you how many times I've talked with an academic and said, oh, I do all this work with the military. And they've said, oh, the military. Well, they need it. I lose it. I'm like, you need it.

SMITH: Helping drive home the point, a growing number of alleged victims are winning civil suits against schools, and survivors are more willing to sue. But on the other hand, so are the accused.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tonight, a UC student suing the school after he was accused of rape.

SMITH: Dozens of students who say they've been unfairly punished are now pushing back against what they say are kangaroo campus courts run amok.

ANNE NEAL: There's a certain hysteria in the air on this topic.

SMITH: Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni says schools are running so scared of violating the civil rights of alleged victims, they end up violating the due process rights of defendants instead.

NEAL: It's really a surreal situation I think. The government has effectively put our universities in an untenable situation where they're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't.

SMITH: Advocates say the pushback is no surprise as the pendulum swings and sexual assault goes from being just swept under the rug to being treated as a serious crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: (As character) Talk to me my friend.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) You know, all I can say is sluts are a lot of fun.

SMITH: Back at Rutgers, the student skit dramatizing sexual assault also highlights the underlying attitude schools are trying to change. As the rapist character Ryan is confronted by friends, he doesn't get where he crossed the line.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) What do you think, coming up to my room and drinking my alcohol?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: (As character, yelling) What do I think?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (As Ryan) And kissing me, and getting on the bed -letting me get on top of her means? What do you think that means?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: (As character, yelling) It means nothing...

SMITH: The Rutgers' skit has been cited by the White House as the kind of program all schools should have to help prevent sexual assault. Incoming freshman Skyler Bolkin says it got her attention.

SKYLER BOLKIN: You know, it's infuriating because no one is safe. I know that sounds a little paranoid, but, I mean, there's always a chance. And you do have to make sure that everyone is safe 'cause that's what friends do.

SMITH: Advocates say training students to be more active bystanders like that and changing campus culture is as critical to reducing campus sexual assault as schools cracking down perpetrators and the government cracking down on schools. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

BLOCK: And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, our series continues with a look at smart phone apps that could help improve campus safety. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.