Scared into silence: Sexual assault persists as underreported college crime
He stifled her frantic screams with a pillow and restrained her flailing limbs with brute force. She could barely breathe as he raped her. When he pulled her body on top of his and pushed her head between his legs, she managed to slip her wrist from his grasp and swiftly struck him in the genitals. Pain clouded his consciousness as she retrieved her clothes and fled into the night.
“I called my friends crying and they met me outside the dorm and helped me in and then called the Elon Police,” said a former Elon University student who was granted anonymity by The Pendulum because of the sensitive nature of her experience. “The Elon Police took my statement, and then my friends took me to the hospital to get a rape kit done.”
The attack ripped into her life like a violent storm and eroded nearly every aspect of her existence. Her health suffered, her relationships frayed and her spirit crumbled. Though the bruises she sustained eventually faded, the memory of that night never did.
The former student’s attack was not an isolated incident. A 2009 study conducted at two large universities found 19 percent of college-aged women had experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college. A national survey conducted in 2010 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 40 percent of female adult rape victims were first raped between ages 18 and 24.
The results of the 2009 college study echoed the findings of national studies conducted in 2000. And 1995. And 1986. The incidence of sexual assault at American colleges and universities has remained constant for nearly 30 years, a trend that many national, state and local lawmakers have tried to reverse with legislation such as the Clery Act and revisions to Title IX procedures.
On college campuses, sexual assault policies largely influence whether students will report attacks and whether the attacks will be successfully prosecuted. As the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Occidental College, Swarthmore College and others wither in the national spotlight after allegedly mishandling several cases of sexual violence, institutions across the country are reexamining their policies and revising them to better support survivors’ rights and interests. Elon will begin rewriting its sexual assault policies this summer.
“We know sexual assault is a big problem at Elon, and a lot of what I’ll be working on is looking at our policies to see how we can make them more extensive and make sure they’re all survivor-driven,” said Becca Bishopric, coordinator for violence prevention and response at Elon. “We need to make sure students know where their confidential resources are.”
Bishopric estimated the revision process will take approximately two years.
“To do it well, we need to sit down with a lot of different campus partners and community partners,” she said. “All of these people need to have input so we can all be on the same page.”
Campus environment poses risks
The frequency of rape and sexual assault on college campuses has generated a large amount of both scholarship and speculation, for the college environment is rife with factors that may contribute to relatively high incidence rates. On many campuses, the weekend begins Thursday night and ends in the early hours of Sunday morning. Thousands of students scurry to parties or bars on weekend evenings and then wander back to their private rooms in the dark of night.
Although party culture is not causally related to sexual assault rates, alcohol is often involved in reports of sexual violence, according to several national studies. Elon is no exception. In 2012, the university required all incoming freshmen to complete a three-part survey of their lifestyle habits. The school conducted the first part of the survey in mid-July, the second part in mid-September and the final part in mid-October. The results illustrated how students’ habits had changed after entering college.
One question asked female students to recall how frequently they were taken advantage of sexually after drinking alcohol in the two-week period prior to the survey. Before entering college, 92.2 percent said they had not been taken advantage of sexually during that time. After entering college, the percentage fell to 87.
Male students were asked a similar question. Prior to entering college, 96.2 percent said they had not taken advantage of someone sexually after drinking alcohol in that two-week period. After entering college, the percentage fell to 92.6.
“The results are very disturbing,” said senior Erica Young, a SPARKS peer educator who is conducting research to determine how Elon can improve its sexual assault policies. “It clearly shows that we have higher rates of sexual assault among freshmen who drink.”
Many variables influence the correlation between alcohol consumption and the risk of sexual assault, but the question of consent figures most prominently into the equation. A student is clearly unable to consent to sexual activity if he or she is minimally responsive as a result of drinking, but the line is not always that distinct.
“I like to use the analogy of a contract,” said Whitney Gregory, director of student conduct at Elon. “Would a contract be valid if someone signed it after having one drink? Probably. But after four drinks? Probably not.”
Elon’s official policy recognizes consent only if it was clearly expressed by a sober student, but Young said the policy should be used more as a guide, rather than a rule.
“I see it as more of a yellow light,” she said. “It requires students to be essentially sober, but it’s not trying to say it’s not consent if you’re both clearly consenting. It just tells students to be cautious in those situations. It’s hard to determine who is past the point of inebriation, so in those situations students should say, ‘Maybe I should rethink what is happening here.’”
Students who are sexually assaulted while intoxicated may be less likely to report the incident for fear of facing disciplinary actions, according to Bishopric.
“We need to have an amnesty policy that guarantees that reporting that they were intoxicated during an incident would be in no way a student conduct sanction,” she said. “I have a great understanding between my office and the student conduct office. Some of it is written down, but some of it isn’t.”
Even in the absence of an amnesty policy, Gregory emphasized students should feel comfortable coming forward with their cases.
“We have never pursued alcohol violations for students who have reported sexual violence of any sort,” she said.
The acquaintance factor
Panic overwhelmed her as he turned off the light and drunkenly advanced toward the bed. In the months she had known him, she had made it very clear she was not interested in a sexual relationship. He ignored her protests as he mounted the bed, pinned her beneath him and used his knee to pry apart her legs apart.
“I was struggling, and I’m not weak, but I’m not a super strong person,” said junior Spencer Barnardo. “I told him to get off of me, and he said, ‘If I wanted to do it, I could.’”
He released her, but he refused to let her leave the room. Only when he fell asleep was she able to sneak out of his bedroom. His words — “If I wanted to do it, I could” — still haunt her today.
“I remember having to walk by both of his roommates as I was leaving,” she said. “I thought to myself, how often does it happen that people are hanging out and doing whatever, while in the back room, someone is being hurt and violated in such a personal way?”
Many college administrators and advocacy groups struggle to answer Barnardo’s question. A study conducted in 2000 by the National Institute of Justice found nearly 90 percent of college women who had experienced attempted or completed rape on campus knew the perpetrator prior to the incident, an act commonly referred to as acquaintance rape or non-stranger sexual assault. The same study found nearly half of the victims surveyed did not define their attacks in that manner, rendering the problem difficult to fully address.
“Acquaintance rape doesn’t follow the stereotypical narrative of a stranger jumping out of the bushes with a weapon,” said Jordan Perry, coordinator for health promotion and substance education. “When our lived experiences don’t match the narrative, they seem to be less serious, but they’re not. Sexual assault on a college campus really has some unique components that you don’t always see in the external world. You’re returning to the same environment where the perpetrator is.”
Though deeply shaken by his words and actions, Barnardo, then a freshman, didn’t initially consider the incident an attempted rape. But when she heard one of her friends was alone with her attacker in his house, she felt the need to intervene.
“I didn’t trust him not to try it with someone else,” she said.
Barnardo, who was at another friend’s apartment at the time, called her friend and asked her to join the two of them. When her friend arrived at the apartment, Barnardo revealed what had happened the night she was attacked.
“They are the ones that pushed me to file charges,” she said. “They helped me see that this was a big deal, that it was not something I could just ignore and that I needed to do something about it.”
When Barnardo explained the situation to Leigh-Anne Royster, then the coordinator for violence prevention and response, Royster commended her for coming forward with the information.
“He had clear behavioral issues, and as Leigh-Anne pointed out, clear sexual issues,” Barnardo said. “She told me that what he said was a clear precursor to actual rape. If he can say that kind of thing, he can do that kind of thing. It was also very clear to us that the more he would drink, the worse his behavior would get.”
Legislators push to stop sexual violence
Public awareness of acquaintance rape on college campuses is rooted in a study published in Ms. Magazine in October 1985. The three-year study, funded by the federal government, surveyed more than 7,000 students at 35 institutions of higher education. The results showed one in four women surveyed were victims of rape or attempted rape, and 84 percent of those who were raped knew the perpetrator prior to the attack.
The results of the survey discredited the common belief that rapists are strangers who ambush their victims in the dead of night, a stereotype The Pendulum criticized in an article published in April 1986.
“It is a myth that most rape victims are attacked by strangers,” wrote Rexanne Ayers, a junior at the time. “Researchers report that women usually blame themselves for the situation and feel that no one will believe them.”
That same month, Jeanne Clery, then a freshman at Lehigh University, was brutally raped, mutilated and murdered by a fellow student on campus. The tragedy inspired a 1988 law requiring colleges and universities in Pennsylvania to record crimes on campus and report them to students. At the time the legislation was passed, less than 4 percent of American colleges publicly reported campus crimes, according to information provided by the North Carolina Sexual Assault Prevention Team.
When the New York state legislature proposed a similar statute, some weren’t sure whether mandatory disclosure of campus crime was necessary to promote students’ safety. George Sussman, then the executive director of the Association of Colleges and Universities in New York, seemed especially unconvinced.
“Colleges aren’t like cigarettes,” he told an Associated Press reporter in May 1989. “Most people don’t die from them.”
But a fuse had been lit, and Sussman couldn’t snuff it. Legislators, parents and students began calling for state and federal disclosure requirements. For the first time, Elon College added “sexual assault” to the “moral and decency offenses” listed in its 1988-1989 student handbook.
“It is unclear whether there is an increase in the number of rapes or in the number being reported, but officials say rape has surpassed theft as the principal security concern at colleges and universities around the country,” wrote Deirdre Carmody, then a New York Times reporter, in a 1989 article. “The concern centers on rapes committed by campus intruders as well as rapes by students who know their victims, a situation often referred to as date rape.”
The New York state legislation passed in 1990, as did the Federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. For the first time, all American institutions of higher education were required to provide campus crime statistics to current and prospective students. The Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights added in 1992 required colleges and universities to implement prevention policies and guarantee victims certain basic rights.
In 1993, Ohio’s Antioch College laid the foundation for what would become an effective consent policy in the following decade. At the time, the policy became the laughing stock of the media elite. The college “required” students to actively voice their consent at each stage of sexual intimacy, an idea The New Yorker spurned in an editorial that year.
“Making fun of the Antioch rules is a sport for people who find shooting fish in a barrel too challenging,” it read. “The rules don’t get rid of unwanted sex at all; they just shift the advantage from the muscle-bound frat boy to the honey-tongued French major.”
Regardless of its success, Antioch’s policy was a sign of the times. Elon College created a separate subsection for sexual assault and rape in its 1992-1993 rules and regulations, and the remainder of the decade was marked by a surge in sexual assault prevention and response efforts. Both policy makers and college administrators began calling for greater accountability in handling such sensitive crimes, according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.
The government revised the Campus Security Act again in 1998 to expand reporting requirements and rename the law in remembrance of Jeanne Clery. Now, the Clery Act requires all campus police departments to keep a daily crime log and publish annual crime reports online.
The 1998 amendment also prohibits colleges and universities from using the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as justification for their refusal to release the decisions of certain judicial hearings on campus, including sexual assault cases.
The federal government reinforced the need to prevent and prosecute sexual assault cases in all educational institutions in 2011 with its “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter, issued through the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, clarified Title IX requirements regarding sexual violence and urged all institutions to uphold the requirements to the best of their abilities.
“A single instance of rape is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment,” the letter read.
Assault rates prove challenging to measure
Despite efforts to strengthen reporting requirements, bolster prevention programs and draft clearer consent policies, it remains difficult to document the scope of sexual violence on college campuses. Rape and sexual assault are highly underreported crimes. A four-year study by the U.S. Department of Justice conducted between 2006 and 2010 found 65 percent of rape and sexual assault victims did not report the incident to the police.
When a student chooses to report an incident to the campus or local police, the crime must be documented in the college or university’s annual crime report. But that number may not necessarily represent the true number of sex offenses that occurred on campus during any given year. Many students who choose to report their attacks seek confidential resources, and at many universities, the number of sex offenses recorded in an annual crime report does not include the number of reports made to violence prevention coordinators, counselors or chaplains.
Elon’s Campus Safety and Police Department recognizes two types of sex offenses as defined by the Clery Act: forcible and non-forcible. A forcible sex offense is defined as “any sexual act directed against another person, forcibly and against the person’s will where the victim is incapable of giving consent.” A non-forcible sex offense is defined as unlawful sexual intercourse such as incest and statutory rape.
In 2010, Elon reported two forcible sex offenses. In 2011, it reported one. According to Bishopric, the numbers fail to accurately reflect the extent of the crimes and may skew the university’s perception of the problem. During the 2010-2011 academic year, confidential responders at Elon received 36 reports of interpersonal violence at Elon. They received the same number of reports in 2011-2012. Interpersonal violence includes sexual assault, relationship violence, harassment and stalking.
“A lot of times, schools delegate resources based on police reports, and that’s not the same as confidential reports,” Bishopric said. “What’s reported there is a very narrow definition of sexual violence and assault.”
Vickie Moehlman, a Campus Safety and Police captain, said the department will include the number of confidential reports in its 2012 crime report, which must be filed by Oct. 1, 2013.
“We have seen the number of confidential reports in the past, but the location of the incident was never included,” Moehlman said. “If we don’t know where it happened, we can’t include it in the report. The 2012 numbers will include the location of the incidents, so we can put them in the report.”
Defining sexual assault
What constitutes rape or sexual assault is, in some ways, rather arbitrary. Definitions vary on federal, state and local levels.
“It can be so confusing for survivors,” Bishopric said. “Most don’t know their options or if what happened to them fell under one of the many definitions of sexual assault. The overarching goal is to have a clear definition of what sexual violence is.”
Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation updated its definition of rape to include “the 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.” Prior to the revision, the bureau used its 1929 definition — the “carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — to collect data and crime statistics.
“That was a big victory, but that doesn’t filter down,” Bishopric said. “It’s not consistent with Clery definitions, and state laws really vary. University policies are also different from college to college.”
Elon does not explicitly define rape and sexual assault in its student handbook. It refers instead to “non-consensual sexual acts,” an all-encompassing term defined as “any attempted or actual sexual contact directed against another person by a student in the direct absence of effective, mutually understandable consent.” The handbook condemns the use of force during any sexual act and emphasizes a student who is mentally or physically incapacitated cannot effectively communicate consent.
Ultimately, it is the student’s right to determine whether his or her experience constitutes rape or sexual assault, Bishopric said.
“I like to tell survivors that you can define your situation and that definitions don’t take away from what has happened to you,” she said. “However they want to define it is what they need to do.”
Students often suffer revictimization
Students who muster the courage to report their attacks are often barraged with condescending questions and regarded with skeptical attitudes, for proof is a heavy burden when little physical or testimonial evidence exists to support it. Legal or disciplinary charges are often dropped in frustration or distress.
“It is difficult for a survivor to come forward because there is so much victim-blaming,” Bishopric said. “The Department of Justice says that only 2 percent of reports are untruthful, yet we have this overwhelming victim-blaming culture. We always ask, ‘Are you sure that actually happened?’ That’s so demeaning to their experience. It’s also totally inaccurate based on the statistics we have.”
When the anonymous former Elon student reported her attack to the local police, the backlash was immediate. Her roommate turned against her, her friends spread false rumors and strangers began harassing her.
“My friends, before I changed dorms, just didn’t get it,” she said. “They got mad at me for being upset about it. I became so afraid to even answer a phone call from an unknown number because I would receive calls harassing me so often.”
Bishopric said victim-blaming, often perpetuated by females, is a psychological defense mechanism.
“Women are more likely to victim-blame because if I, as a woman, make it sound like you could have done something to stop the attack, it makes me feel safer,” she said. “That is totally false. It’s something women do as a protective thing.”
The student transferred to a school in another state at the end of the academic year, but the harassment persisted. She continued to press charges as she was derided from afar.
“My first year at my new school was still kind of miserable because I was being harassed the first semester, and then toward the end of first semester and all of second semester the lawyers would check in with me about different aspects of the case,” she said. “It was just taking over my life.”
When she heard the perpetrator hired an expensive lawyer, she was forced to reconsider her course of action.
“The lawyer had a reputation of being really mean with victims on the stand,” she said. “After about a year and a half, I went to North Carolina and decided to drop the charges because I couldn’t devote any more of my life to this.”
She said she might pursue the case in civil court.
When Barnardo chose to file charges with the university judicial system, some of her friends refused to testify on her behalf.
“There were some people who had witnessed his behavior and knew it was wrong, but still said to us, ‘What did you expect? You knew what he was like, and you got what was coming to you,’” Barnardo said. “I actually had two people tell my friends that I got what I deserved.”
The road to justice splits for students who wish to file charges against their attackers. They may travel through a student conduct process, a criminal process or a civil process. Students may press student conduct and criminal charges simultaneously, but most pursue only one form of prosecution.
At Elon and many other institutions, a student judicial hearing proceeds far differently than a criminal trial. Both rely on either physical or testimonial evidence to determine the outcome, but the university determines whether the accused party is guilty of the charges by “preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
"We try hard to communicate that the student handbook is not meant to mimic the legal system,” Gregory said. “It’s different philosophically. We’re still trying to achieve justice, but through the lens of the Honor Code. We’re trying to reframe the conversation outside of the legal system.”
Though the standard of evidence is lower in a university judicial hearing, sexual assault cases are complex and often difficult to navigate in a way that is fair to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.
“We contact the accused and let him or her know the university is investigating charges against them, and then we get their perspective before pursuing investigation,” Gregory said. “There are so many factors we have to look at. Was there clear force? If there was force, all other factors are relevant, but we don’t need to get into as many details, such as coercion, manipulation, intoxication and effective communication.”
All sexual assault cases at Elon are brought before an administrative board composed of four trained faculty and staff members. Gregory said this practice helps prevent mistrials or biased verdicts, which may occur when a university refers sexual assault cases to a student honor board. UNC Chapel Hill was recently criticized for handling sexual assault cases in that manner.
“Our administrative hearing board is trained to ask good questions to get at the information, but not to judge,” Gregory said. “They bring multiple perspectives to the table.”
When Barnardo filed charges against her attacker through the university, Royster encouraged her to gather complaints from other students, as well.
“Leigh-Anne said that we would have a better chance of something actually happening if multiple people came forward,” Barnardo said. “It was actually very hard to find people who were willing to get involved. I think there ended up being four of us who were actually charging him with violations, and then a few who gave witness statements.”
Barnardo’s correspondence with Elon staff members and administrators during the filing process led her to believe she would only be able to learn the outcome of the hearing if she attended it herself.
“I considered it, but I couldn’t do it,” Barnardo said. “I knew I couldn’t just sit there in a room with him and have him give me that look that says, ‘How could you do this to me?’ as if this was me trying to hurt him in some way.”
Two years have elapsed since the hearing took place, and Barnardo has no idea what kind of sanctions her attacker received, if any. He is still a student at Elon.
“We heard rumors from people that he was supposed to be expelled, but that was obviously not the case,” she said. “It kills me that we just don’t know what happened.”
A student who presses sexual assault charges against another student is afforded the right to know the outcome of the hearing under section eight of the Clery Act. According to Gregory, Elon’s policies reflect that provision.
“Our process has been aligned with recommendation and requirements that came out two years ago,” she said. “We have always let the survivor know the outcome.”
When the anonymous former student filed her statement with the police, her attacker filed a counterstatement that said she had consented. But her body bore telling signs of trauma, and the university took immediate action against him.
“He wasn’t allowed on campus at first, and then he was only allowed to be on campus for his classes,” she said. “When he was allowed to be on campus, I remember being really scared that I would run into him, and I think the school did the best it could because he had to tell the dean of judicial affairs where he would be at every moment of every day, and if he lied, then he would be in more trouble.”
Her attacker withdrew before a student conduct hearing could commence, but the legal process pressed on for months. It was exhausting, depressing and ultimately fruitless.
“The legal process is hard because North Carolina’s definitions of sexual assault are a bit confusing,” Bishopric said. “There is the definition of rape, then there is the definition of sexual offense. Under North Carolina law, rape is only the penetration of the vagina by a penis. Sexual assault carries the same penalties if someone is charged with a sexual offense, but that’s a challenge of someone wanting to go through a legal process.”
Ultimately, both Barnardo and the anonymous student said they were highly disappointed in the way their cases played out.
“I just don’t feel like justice was served,” Barnardo said. “I ask myself, ‘What came of this?’ I got a lot of negativity for it, and I almost don’t feel like it was worth it because it seems like nothing had changed.”
Campus organizations push forward
Elon offers many resources for survivors of rape and sexual assault. Confidential responders are available at any time to receive reports, support students in the hospital and file charges with the police. The university also sponsors prevention programming through SPARKS peer education and the offices of violence prevention and health promotion.
But many students and staff members feel the university can do more to meet the needs of its students. In her research, Young has compared Elon’s sexual assault policies to those of its peer and aspirant institutions in order to determine where the university’s policies fall short. She found Elon’s written policies are far less extensive than those of many other institutions, including Bucknell University and the College of William and Mary.
“If we want to have a comprehensive policy, we need protocol and definitions that students can easily access and understand,” she said. “We have a lot of great policies in practice, and Becca is awesome as a confidential responder, but if you don’t have certain things clearly written in policy, it’s not easily understood.”
Young recommended adding an amnesty policy, as well as policies that clearly outline a survivor’s rights and options for proceeding.
Bishopric agreed. She applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice to create a sexual assault response team at Elon.
“One of the main tasks for that team would be looking at our policy to make it clear, consistent and accessible across the board,” she said. “We have to give them the clear evidence of where they can go. It’s clear we need to do more interfacing with first-year students. We’re trying to find ways to do it thoughtfully.”
Bishopric said she plans to expand existing prevention programs, as well.
“The North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault developed a packet of best practices,” she said. “That’s another thing that we’re finding is really important. They focus a lot on prevention methods, while most of our policies are responsive. It’s not a model, but rather more of a how-to guide. We’ll be looking at these guidelines as we update our policies.”
In the meantime, many programs on campus are vying to raise awareness about sexual assault and offer support to survivors. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and April 24, SPARKS is hosting Take Back the Night, a rally to promote awareness on campus.
“People will be more comfortable coming forward if they know they have a lot of support behind them,” Bishopric said. “We need to make that shift and educate our people.”