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NY Says Schools Must Deal With Campus Sex Assaults

  • Bernard Shusman

Before school starts next August, colleges and universities in New York State will have to prove they're taking action – not just talking – about ending sexual assault on campus.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently ordered state agencies to review state colleges under the terms of the “Enough is Enough” law. They have until school begins to report back to the governor’s task force.

The State University of New York system –- SUNY -– has 442,000 students on 64 campuses. The incidence of sexual assault on all New York campuses is 0.16 per 10,000 students. By comparison, California, the largest American state with 2.6 million students, has a sexual assault rate of 0.06 per 10,000, less than half of New York’s rate and 43rd in the country, one of the lowest rates in the U.S., according to Politico.

Cuomo’s directive springs from concern about the under-reporting of sexual assault on college campuses. In the United States, young women 18 to 24 are at an elevated risk of sexual violence. Twenty-three percent of all females on college campuses, compared with slightly more than 5 percent of males, experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).

RAINN’s survey, including statistics from the Department of Justice, states that sexual violence is more prevalent in college compared to other crimes. DOJ says 80 percent of rape and sexual assault victimizations are not reported to authorities by student victims.

“Some colleges were reporting zero sexual assaults," said Jess Davidson, assistant managing director of End Rape On Campus. "That doesn’t mean there are no sexual assaults. That means the campus authorities are not encouraging students to report or students feel that reporting creates more problems.”

According to the EROC, 310 universities have been investigated nationwide by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. As of 2014, 55 colleges and universities still had ongoing investigations. Some of the most prestigious universities in America — Harvard, Dartmouth, Michigan and Princeton – are included on this list.

Defining sexual assault

School administrators face having to define sexual assault among a population of young people who may be on their own for the first time. Students may not yet have an understanding of how to report a sexual assault or what laws are meant to keep them safe.

In 2015, universities began to pay more attention after the award winning documentary, “The Hunting Ground," was released. Depicting sexual violence on campus, it “helped create an atmosphere that supports reporting sexual assault of all kinds,” Davidson says.

Laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual contact that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping to attempted rape. Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is rape.

Campus vs. local police intervention

“If there is a complaint of sexual violence, there are two types of investigations that get launched. One is a police investigation,” explained Rick Fitzgerald, director of public affairs for the University of Michigan. “If the allegations are believed to be criminal in nature, it’s immediately turned over to the police department in Ann Arbor or on campus, depending where it took place.”

The second type of investigation is an internal one.

“Our Office for Institutional Equity has staff that specialize in sexual misconduct investigations.” Fitzgerald said “The allegedly attacked student is urged to contact the OIE office by phone, in-person, or by filing a PDF form. The university professionals then determine the next steps, which can include contacting law enforcement.”

A recent case at Baylor University showed that campus administrators should turn over rape investigations to local police, says Alex Morey from the Foundation for Individual Right Education. Baylor decided against punishing a football player accused of rape who was later convicted in a criminal proceeding.

Before the first class

Imparting acceptable behaviors and communication to students is one way many colleges try to prevent sexual assault. Whitney Gregory, who serves as assistant dean of students at Elon University, said expectations, policy, law and communications are key.

“We want there to be a foundational understanding before they even set foot on campus. And when they are here, we are having conversations during orientation about consent, intervention and about sexual violence,” Gregory said. “Students report much higher rates of understanding some of the red flags for potential sexual violence.”

Laura Lutiamo, assistant director at Rutgers University in New Jersey for violence prevention and victim assistance, says most perpetrators say they believe their behavior is normal.

“There is a real sense of entitlement among perpetrators who frequently say, ‘I did this because this is what I wanted to do,’” she says.

Loren Linscott, who directs the Rutgers program, says he, too, believes there is a link between family upbringing and perpetrators. He says many perpetrators experienced sexual violence when they were young.

Linscott bases her findings on studies like the one conducted by Eileen Zurbriggen of the University of California at Santa Cruz. In her study, Zurbriggen found a correlation between childhood abuse and aggression later in life. Findings like these could explain what leads an individual to commit sexually violent acts.

Worldwide, the United Nations reports that 250,000 cases of rape or attempted rape are recorded by police annually. But the World Health Organization (WHO) says that number is actually much larger. According to a 2013 survey, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence and most is intimate partner violence. And in the U.S., a national crime victimization survey showed that the offender was known to the victim about 80 percent of the time in cases of campus rape and sexual assaults.

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