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Campus Sexual Assault: What Are Colleges Doing Wrong?

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Posted on Jul 30, 2014

By Abbie Nehring, ProPublica

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This piece originally ran on ProPublica.

Update July 29: We have updated this article to include the responses universities gave to the stories. 

During their time at college, the Department of Justice estimates one in five women will be sexually assaulted, and as many as 95 percent of the cases go unreported.

So how are colleges failing to protect students from sexual assault? We sorted through the reporting to highlight a few cases that show the system’s greatest shortcomings.

When Football Goes on Trial

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Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide ten days after reporting to Notre Dame campus police that she had been sexually assaulted by a Fighting Irish linebacker. As news of the allegations spread, Seeberg was threatened by the player’s teammates. “Don’t do anything you would regret,” one texted her. “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” The campus authorities didn’t interview the accused player until 15 days after receiving Seeberg’s statement, five days after she committed suicide. The police declined to bring charges and Notre Dame declined to discuss the case when it was first reported. 

Since 2010, there have been investigations into rape and sexual assault by football players at the University of Missouri, Baylor College, the US Naval Academy, University of Texas, Vanderbilt, Appalachian State, and numerous others.

And officials have frequently faced scrutiny for their response. When a freshman at Florida State University reported that star quarterback Jameis Winston had raped her, the case was kept under wraps until TMZ broke the news. The New York Times later detailed how authorities failed to promptly investigate even though records show that the athletic department knew about it less than a month after the victim came forward.  The university declined to speak to the Times about the case, citing privacy laws.

In another case, a panel at Hobart and William Smith colleges in upstate New York quickly cleared three football players of a complaint brought against them by a freshman named Anna. Records of the case obtained by the New York Times showed that the football players lied to campus police at first, and then gave a story that did not align with evidence collected in Anna’s medical examination.  Yet because colleges usually keep those proceedings confidential to protect students’ privacy, the public is kept mostly in the dark about what happens in a sexual assault hearing. Officials at Hobart and William Smith told the Times they have “no tolerance for sexual assault.” They also declined to answer specific questions, citing privacy laws.  

Only a Slap on the Wrist

In a case that unfolded at Indiana University in 2006, a disciplinary panel concluded that a student named Margaux had been the victim of “inappropriate sexual contact.” Their chosen punishment? Banning the assailant from campus for the summer. After Margaux appealed the decision, the university eventually extended the suspension to a full year. By that time, Margaux had already dropped out to avoid being on the same campus as her assailant.

A joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity into Margaux’s case and other college sexual assault hearings across the country found a common pattern. Sexual assault hearings have resulted in one-month suspensions and even essay assignments. Indiana University defended its suspension of the student who assaulted Margaux. “We’d like to think we can always educate and hold accountable the student,” a dean told CPI. 

Patrick Henry College: A World without Title IX

Patrick Henry College, a rural evangelical institution in northern Virginia offers a window into what life is like without the protections of Title IX, which outlaws gender discrimination on college campuses. In order to remain exempt from that law, the college turns down federal funding.

In an investigation published in The New Republic, Kiera Feldman looked into the cases of several young women who dropped out of Patrick Henry after reporting being sexually assaulted by fellow students. Title IX requires colleges to have a procedure for handling harassment and sexual violence complaints and to take immediate action to ensure that victims can continue their education free from harassment or retaliation. Instead, Feldman reports, a student named Sarah and her accused assailant both received “growth contracts” which mainly involved weekly counseling sessions during which Sarah read aloud passages from evangelical women’s self-help literature. In response to the story, the college released a detailed statement: “Our foremost concern has always been to protect and nurture all our students.” 

Taking a University to Court

When students believe their cases have been mishandled, they can file a Title IX complaint. That’s what students have done this year at Occidental, University of California at Berkeley, University of North Carolina, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, University of Southern California, and dozens of other schools.

So many sexual assault victims have filed complaints that there are now 71 schools under federal investigation for Title IX violations across the country. knowyourix.org, a site set up by advocates, lays out how you can file a complaint.

Five University of Connecticut students who believed the school hadn’t properly hadn’t their sexual assault complaints took it a step further and filed a federal lawsuit in October 2013. UConn President Susan Herbst said their allegations — that the university neglected their cases — were “astonishingly misguided and demonstrably untrue.” The case was settled outside of court this month for $1.28 million, UConn did not admit to wrongdoing and says it follows Title IX regulations in handling sexual violence on its campus.


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