We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
According to a a new report from the Center for Public Integrity, many U.S. colleges fail to adhere to federal laws that dictate the school’s response after sexual assaults are reported on its campus. “Under Title IX, schools must meet three requirements if they find a sexual assault has occurred: end a so-called “hostile environment”; prevent its future occurrence; and restore victims’ lives,” writes CPI reporter Kristen Lombardi.
In many cases, however, students found responsible for sexual assault through the college judicial process are administered little more than a slap on the wrist, leaving victims to continue pursuing their education in close proximity to their assailants—-or drop out.
CPI’s examination of sexual assault data found that, in colleges across the country, expulsion was a rare punishment for even the most serious of cases:
As much as 75 to 90 percent of total disciplinary actions doled out by schools that report statistics to the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women amounted to minor sanctions, although it’s unclear from the data what the nature of the “sexual assault” offenses were. Among those modest sanctions: reprimands, counseling, suspensions, and community service. The most common sanctioning reflected what the data calls “other” restrictions—-alcohol treatment, for example, or social probation. Interviews and records in these cases show that other minor penalties include orders that perpetrators write a letter of apology, or make a presentation to a campus advocacy group, or write a research paper on sexual violence. Administrators note that they sometimes issue multiple sanctions. For instance, they may require a no-contact order, a housing ban, and classes on sexual consent. By contrast, the database shows that colleges rarely expel culpable students in these cases—-even though the Justice Department encourages its campus grant recipients to train judicial panels to hand down “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion.”
For many victims, of course, receiving a letter of apology from their rapists does not help to restore their lives or alleviate the hostile environment caused by attending classes with, living close to, and running in social circles with their attackers. These minor punishments also fail to satisfy the third requirement of Title IX: Preventing the future occurrence of sexual assault.
Indiana University, which CPI notes has “expelled only one of 12 students found responsible for alleged sexual assaults in the past four years,” explains that “our basic philosophy is not to expel.” Instead, the university offers what CPI characterizes as “teaching moments.”
One IU student who was found responsible for “sexual assault (power differential)” was administered a short suspension during the university’s summer term, a period when few students even stay on campus or enroll in classes. According to his victim, the student had seen her crying and drunk in the hallway, followed her into her dorm room, and forced sex on her as she passed in and out of consciousness. According to the CPI report, IU did not see this student as a threat to other women on campus. “The university will kick out a student believed to be a threat,” CPI reports. But according to Indiana University officials, ‘that does not mean that every single person found responsible for sexual assault gets expelled. They’re not all predators.'” The victim ended up dropping out of school.
CPI has uncovered several stories that follow that same narrative. A junior at Bowdoin College “reported being raped by a baseball player in her dorm after an alcohol-soaked party.” The player, who was found responsible for the “charge of sexual assault,” received a social suspension, but was still allowed to play attend home games; the victim transferred schools. A Penn State student reported being raped by a classmate in an off-campus apartment. Her assailant, who was found responsible for “nonconsensual oral sex” and “nonconsensual intercourse,” had his degree delayed for one year; the victim dropped out and transferred, but not before swallowing “‘a big handful’ of sleeping pills.”
Universities that don’t choose to expel rapists from campus operate under the assumption that these students won’t assault again. Research has disproved that assumption:
But critics say that attitude fails to recognize a disturbing reality about campus rape: Many incidents go beyond “miscommunication” among two drunk students—-a common characterization among school officials—-to predatory acts. Lisak, the U-Mass professor, has studied what he terms “undetected rapists” on college campuses. His research suggests that over half of student rapists are likely repeat offenders who rape an average of six times. Yet administrators, Lisak observes, “think of serial rapists as the guy who wears a ski mask and jumps out of the bushes.”
“Schools that overlook this paradigm are failing their female students,” charges Bruno, of the Victim Rights Law Center, referring to Lisak’s research. “Giving someone a deferred suspension is like giving someone carte blanche to do it again.”
After the Indiana University victim the judicial process, she received an e-mail from another woman who also lived in the IU dorms. The same student who had cornered her while drunk and crying, the woman wrote, “has come into my room on two occasions and forced himself upon me.” In an appeal, the IU victim forwarded the woman’s ominously similar claims on to officials. According to CPI, “Indiana University officials did not factor her claims into sanctioning.”