How College Campuses Handle Sexual Assaults A report from the Center for Public Integrity indicates more than 20% of college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate. Guests discuss how schools can better curb assaults and protect students.

How College Campuses Handle Sexual Assaults

How College Campuses Handle Sexual Assaults

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A report from the Center for Public Integrity indicates more than 20% of college women will be victims of rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate. Guests discuss how schools can better curb assaults and protect students.


Kristen Lombardi, investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, and lead author on the report, "Sexual Assault On Campus"
Rick Olshak, associate dean of students, Illinois Sate University
Connie Kirkland, director of sexual assault services at George Mason University


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

The problem of sexual assault is a perennial one for college campuses. Despite years of public education and policy, one in five college women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape before graduation. But that number, from a national study funded by the Justice Department, is at best an estimate since sexual assault remains under-reported by both victims and by colleges. And the students who do report attacks face a depressing litany of barriers that often either assure their silence or leave them feeling victimized a second time. That's the conclusion of a nine-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity called "Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice." The report was released this week.

We'll talk with one of the report's authors, as well as people on the front lines of campus sexual assault, and we want to hear your story. Whether you were the victim, the accused, a college administrator or a sexual assault counselor, what was your experience? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kristen Lombardi is an investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity and one of the authors of the report. She's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KRISTEN LOMBARDI (Investigative Reporter, Center for Public Integrity): Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So since the subtitle of your report is "A Frustrating Search for Justice," I imagine that sort of sums up what you found. What were your main findings?

Ms. LOMBARDI: Well, just by way of background, myself and my co-reporter, Kristin Jones, set out to examine how colleges handle and adjudicate sexual assault cases nine months ago. And we interviewed 48 college administrators, hearing conduct officers, lawyers, scholars, victim advocates. We tried to get the full range of people who would come in contact with students who would report. We also interviewed 33 female students who reported to their school administrations being raped by fellow students, and we surveyed 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses across the country.

I'd say what we found was pretty troubling. You know, if you step back and you look at the big picture, there's a culture of silence around campus sexual assault, and it's rooted in a staggering statistical reality, which is the majority of students who are sexually assaulted on campus remain silent. That national study that you refer to also goes on to say that more than 95 percent of college women who are sexually assaulted do not report to campus police or campus officials. So you know, we did intersect with this finding personally in our interviews. You know, many victims we found don't identify what happened to them as sexual assault, and that was pretty striking to me.

ROBERTS: And just to clarify for our listeners, how did you define sexual assault for the purposes of this report?

Ms. LOMBARDI: Well, we defined it as - I mean, I'll be honest. Most of the people we talked to reported being raped, but we defined sexual assault beyond rape to be, you know, fondling or unwanted sexual contact. That would be, you know, the gist of - so a broader definition, basically, than just rape. But most of the students that we did interview reported being actually raped.

ROBERTS: So in addition to, as you say, this sort of culture of silence in terms of not reporting the incident itself, then there goes on to be this confusing and secretive process once the assault actually is reported.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Yes. I mean, one of the things that our series of stories demonstrate, I think, is how the campus judiciary process, which, you know, can be shrouded in secrecy, affects real women. I mean, just over half of the students we interviewed said that they unsuccessfully sought criminal charges and instead had to seek justice in closed, school-run proceedings that either led to light punishments or no punishment at all for their alleged assailants.

ROBERTS: And why is that? Why is criminal - why are criminal charges hard to get?

Ms. LOMBARDI: Well, I mean, that's an interesting topic, I think, and debate about how the criminal justice system handles the vast majority of acquaintance-rape cases. Because campus - you know, the typical campus sexual assault is an acquaintance-rape case. I mean, we found, and we heard this a lot, even from college administrators, a frustration over the fact that local authorities often, you know, decline to prosecute these cases.

The students that we talked to, you know, a lot of them did go to the local authorities because they wanted to pursue criminal charges, and the D.A.s essentially declined to prosecute. And I think that speaks to the fact that a lot of allegations of campus sexual assault come down to he-said-she-said accounts where there is rarely physical evidence and rarely independent eyewitness testimony.

Alcohol and drug use can play a central role and complicate things a lot further. The alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator typically know each other in some fashion. And so a lot of college administrators even told us, you know, we're kind of the only ones willing to take on these cases, and so for that reason, you know, we do it. They - a lot of them expressed to me a frustration over the difficulties of handling these cases because they are difficult cases, and you know, they wished that the criminal justice system would maybe be a little more aggressive in terms of prosecuting acquaintance-rape cases.

ROBERTS: And when these cases do go to a university process, did you find some commonality school to school, or is it kind of ad hoc?

Ms. LOMBARDI: Well, it is - I mean, the judicial process is individual to each campus. We did find that a lot of proceedings and the options that are available for students will reflect the culture of that institution, but there are sort of, I guess, overarching proceedings. You know, there are common proceedings that you might be expected to find, and that is typically, there is going to be a hearing panel process. Often those hearing panels will consist of students and faculty and staff members serving as a board to, you know, listen to testimony in a case, and it's conducted very much like you might expect a hearing to be conducted, with both sides presenting their cases.

We found a lot of informal proceedings, as well, and they could be, you know, conversations with deans in separate meetings between the accusing student and the accused student, or they could be - we found quite a lot of mediations, which is - you know, we were quite startled by, you know, the concept of mediation in a sexual violence case.

It is very controversial because it's frowned upon by both the Education and Justice Departments. You know, it's essentially what you think it would be. It's a meeting between the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator in a room meant to discuss the incident in question. There's no punishment involved and no repercussion for anything incriminating that an alleged perpetrator might say, and everything is meant to be confidential.

ROBERTS: And why is that discouraged in rape cases?

Ms. LOMBARDI: Well, it's discouraged by the Education Department because of the, you know, inherent intimidation factor when it comes to sexual assault and sexual violence cases. You know, an alleged victim sitting across from an alleged perpetrator you might imagine could be - you know, those two parties are not on equal footing, let's put it that way. In most mediations, it's meant to be two parties on equal footing.

The Justice Department Office for Violence Against Women, they discourage mediation because of the lack of punishment attached to mediation. And there are critics that we talked to about mediation, victim advocates particularly, who feel like this is essentially a free pass, especially if an accused student makes incriminating statements or apologizes or admits to sexual assault in these forums, and then there's no punishment. So it's, you know, essentially looking the other way at what is ultimately criminal behavior.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Angie(ph) in Salt Lake City. Angie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANGIE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.


ANGIE: I had a very similar experience to what you all have been talking about. I was sexually assaulted 12 years ago by four college football players at a college party. I had not previously met them. I went to the hospital and tried to, you know, prosecute as appropriate, and the district attorney basically did tell me exactly that: There's four people saying one thing, that it was consensual, and one person saying it's not, and so I'm not going to prosecute this.

I also went to the college institution. It was a religious school, and so I went to their honor code, and they did end up doling out very light reprimand for these college football players. Two of them, they had them go on probation, but they allowed them to do it over the summer, and that was the extent of their punishment. The other two were close to graduating. They were seniors, done with their football career, and so they were allowed to go ahead and graduate.

And that's, you know, basically as far as it went, and I have - you know, during that time, I had to drop out of school because I was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and had to take some time off and was waking up with nightmares, and you know, it definitely took a very strong toll that obviously is still with me today.

ROBERTS: And Angie, were you allowed to discuss the particulars of the process as it was happening?

ANGIE: No. No. They asked me not to. I basically did - you know, I told who I deemed appropriate. I actually went to the football coach and told him what happened, naively thinking that he would, you know, take care of it. And he looked me in the face and said you need to be careful where you go and who you hang out with, when it was actually a college-sponsored party and his football players that he brought to that university.

ROBERTS: Angie, thank you so much for sharing that story with us. I really appreciate you being that brave.

ANGIE: Thank you. Thank you for your topic.

ROBERTS: And Kristen Lombardi, we're about to take a break, but her story is very reminiscent of some of the ones you heard doing this report.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we heard overwhelmingly that kind of disparity in outcomes. A lot of the students that we interviewed who went through the process did end up failing, essentially, their classrooms because they - or their classes because they became consumed by this process. So their education suffered. And on the other hand, their alleged assailants went on to graduate, and their records were unscathed, overwhelmingly.

ROBERTS: We will talk more about how to improve campus response to sexual assaults in just a moment and how to prevent attacks in the first place. We'll also take your calls, 800-989-8255. You can also share your experience by email, I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. A little later this hour, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris gives us some help with understanding the issue of climate change. He'll share his climate change reading list.

Right now, the troubling issue of sexual assaults on campus. Why aren't colleges and universities doing more to support victims? This stems from the new report subtitled "A Frustrating Search for Justice." Our guests are Kristen Lombardi, she helped write that report for the Center of Public Integrity. And also joining us now is Rick Olshak. He's associate dean of students at Illinois State University, and he's worked for many years with students and programs to deal with assault. Rick Olshak, welcome to the program.

Mr. RICK OLSHAK (Associate Dean of Students, Illinois State University): Thanks, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So we have heard the scope of the problem according to the Center on Public Integrity report. We heard Angie's story. You have been working with students for years. Would you say the situation on campus is really this bad?

Mr. OLSHAK: I think you have to look at the individual campuses. I think this is outstanding research that Kristen has done, and these are stories that need to be told. As I told Kristen when we were going through the process of writing this story, I'm always cautious about using this to generalize across all campuses because there are many campus disciplinary proceedings being conducted today, this day as we speak, that are being conducted effectively, efficiently and with compassion. But as long as there are people that are not conducting processes that are transparent, that are fair and that are accessible by people, then we have a problem, and it's a problem we need to address.

ROBERTS: Well, help us understand the university's perspective on this because when you hear from a victim's point of view that the process was secret and confusing, and she wasn't allowed to talk about it, and her accused even seems to have gotten off lightly, what are the sort of conflicting interests that a college has to balance?

Mr. OLSHAK: Well, I'm not sure that any of those things are something the college - I mean, we have no vested interest in the outcome. We are trying to create a process that's going to be fair for all people involved. And you know, to hear particularly Angie's story, where the students who, you know, committed sexual assault are being allowed to graduate or being given reprimands to me is abominable. You know, I expressed a great deal of concern to Kristen when we were talking that, you know, some people do get it wrong, and I think those people need to be held accountable.

From our perspective, we need to provide a process that is going to protect the interests of all parties. And whenever we put up barriers like this, we are contributing to the problem. We are deterring people who would otherwise come forward to report the offenses committed upon them.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Carol(ph) in Durham, North Carolina, who says: When I was in college, I never identified or reported when I was sexually assaulted because alcohol was always involved, and I always blamed it on myself because, ultimately, I had decided to take one too many drinks. How big of a factor do you think alcohol is when reporting rape on college campuses?

Mr. OLSHAK: I think alcohol is involved in the overwhelming majority of these cases. And I've seen any number of instances where women later accuse themselves or blame themselves based on their conduct, and it's a very unfortunate thing to see.

I think many of these women don't know where to turn. They don't know -you know, most campuses will have some form of victim advocate that can talk to them about counseling, that can talk to them about the processes that are afforded to them, but they never make it to these resources because they're too busy really blaming themselves, and I understand that.

Ms. LOMBARDI: And Rebecca, we did find a lot of students, who eventually did come forward, continue to blame themselves, especially if the process didn't go their way, if their hearing didn't end up in the way they had hoped, meaning that the accused student was found not responsible. And they felt grilled by hearing panelists because of, you know, alcohol being a factor leading up to the incident. They continued to blame themselves.

But one other thing, also, that we found: reasons why victims didn't report is because of the reaction of their friends. In the second story that we wrote, we highlighted the case of a woman from Towson University who was at a party and ended up being sexually assaulted and told her friends immediately about it. And everybody busted out laughing and said, you know, you must have been drunk, well, you were drunk, so you must have been dreaming this assault and you know, continued to make her into the butt of a joke for a year, every time they went out drinking saying, you know, you'd better watch out. If you drink, you may sexually assault yourself.

And it ended up that that same student who had sexually assaulted the student whose case we feature, did the same thing to another of her friends, exactly the same thing. And she finally came forward to police at that point. So it took another assault to happen for her to kind of realize that it's not my fault. I wasn't so drunk that I didn't understand what was going on, and you know, she stopped blaming herself. But my point was her friends' reaction was really important. That was the reason why she didn't come forward, and we found that, you know, peer pressure is often one of the reasons college women don't report.

ROBERTS: And Rick Olshak, given that you can't know what's not reported, how do you encourage that, I mean, other than sort of fostering a climate of openness, which can be sort of squishy? How do you, as someone on a campus, make women feel like it's safe for them to do this?

Mr. OLSHAK: Well, I think they need to know that there are resources available, that we widely publish those resources. In our case, on my campus, we do have a survivors' services coordinator and advocate for those students, and it's important that students know that she is available for them. And that is their guide into the process, in a very non-threatening way, with people who have no vested interest and who can help them find their own way through this process. One of the things we need to do is respect the wishes of the victim.

ROBERTS: Rick Olshak, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. OLSHAK: No problem, thank you.

ROBERTS: Rick Olshak is associate dean of students at Illinois State University. He joined us from member station WGLT, which is on the campus of Illinois State in Normal, Illinois.

Let's take a call. This is Elena(ph) in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Elena, welcome to the program.

ELENA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.


ELENA: I was - about five years ago, I was attending a college out here in Southwest Michigan, and I went through a sexual assault, rape by a guy I knew. And when I finally was able to have the guts to report it, the school basically did not have any sort of structured process in order to seek some sort of justice at the school. And the police department wasn't really working with me, either, on the other side of the fence. And so the police wanted help from the school officials. The school officials wouldn't help them, and so it just went back and forth. And I was left in the middle going, you know, what am I doing?

ROBERTS: Now Kristen Lombardi, I understand that for a school to not have any process is actually illegal.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Yeah, I mean, it's very interesting to hear this because it's really important to note that the biggest reason why colleges and universities are handling these cases in the first place is because they're required to do so by federal law. That federal law is Title IX. When a student comes forward and alleges sexual assault, a school has to investigate the claim and take action to eliminate under any harm, if harm is actually, you know, substantiated.

So at a bare minimum, schools need: A, a sexual assault policy, and B, procedures for adjudicating cases or at least responding to sexual assault claims. So the fact that there would be no process in place, I would say, is an obvious violation of Title IX. In fact, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request and got 10 years' worth of complaints filed against higher education institutions under Title IX through the Office for Civil Rights, which is a division of the Education Department. And schools were found in violation of Title IX over the last 10 years because they didn't have a policy in place or procedures in place.

ROBERTS: Elena, thank you so much for calling us.

ELENA: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We've been talking about what happens after a student reports a sexual assault, but we want to turn now to what college campuses are doing to help prevent attacks from happening in the first place. Connie Kirkland is director of Sexual Assault Services at George Mason University. She provides campus-wide education and training workshops dealing with sexual assault, date rape, alcohol and drug abuse. She's with us on the phone from her home in Fairfax, Virginia. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CONNIE KIRKLAND (Director, Sexual Assault Services, George Mason University): Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: You've been listening to the conversation so far, obviously a problem you deal with at George Mason, as all schools do. What have you found that works to minimize the problem from the prevention end?

Ms. KIRKLAND: Well, I mean, what my office does a great deal is reach out to classes, to freshmen when they first come on campus, to resident assistants in housing, to help them understand what a victim may be - if a victim may come to them, how they might be able to better respond. We sponsor major events throughout the year. In the fall, one week in October is called Turn Off The Violence Week, and it is very much emphasis on ending sexual and domestic violence on campus. And it is probably noticed by a minimum of 10,000 of our students. We're a very large university, 30,000 strong, but we do mostly outdoor events at that time, which really draws a lot of attention, including the Clothesline Project and Take Back the Night, which are pretty common on college campuses.

ROBERTS: And in the years that you have been having events like that, have you seen incidences of sexual assault decline? Is there reason to believe those work?

Ms. LOMBARDI: You know, it's really hard to say whether things are declining or increasing. I think that on our campus, first of all, my office, Sexual Assault Services, has been there since 1993, one of the first in the country. And we're very visible on campus. And so, yes, reports have risen. But is it because there are more incidents, or is it because more people are aware that they have the resources, you know, to help them through it? It's a really - an impossible thing to know.

All I can gauge the numbers by is by some of those recent national research studies that still show one in four or one in five women on a college campus are going to become victims of some kind of a sexual assault. So I don't think it's declining.

I mean, I do think the culture of students today is changing. It has changed in the last couple of years. I mean, and I believe very strongly that the use of text messages, chat rooms, constant connection with the Internet and email has a great deal to do with the lack of communication ability that students have, and therefore, there's also this need for immediate gratification. And then that transfers to on the spot, in the person, at the party. I want it now because I've always been able to get it now when I hook into the Internet, when I write in the chat room, when I send a text message. And so the issue of consent is just not as important, you know, in some people's lives as it should be.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, you know, we've been hearing that one in four, one in five number, certainly, since I was in college, and that was shortly after the earth cooled.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Mm-hmm.

ROBERTS: You know, it was certainly long before email.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Right, right. Yeah. Well, I don't know. You know, I think that we don't know - well, first of all, we just don't know how to talk to one another. So I believe it has been influenced by the technology. But again, you know, the whole emphasis on wanting something when you want it and not being willing to take no for an answer is a very critical issue on college campuses and in, you know, the communities in general.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take a call from Jason in Columbia, South Carolina. Jason, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JASON (Caller): Hey, thanks for having me.


JASON: Well, I just wanted to say that I - when I went to college, I graduated about two years ago, but I still helped out. About a year and a half ago, I was a part of a group called One in Four, that it was all-male college students, and we sort of gave, like, seminars to only male college students. And what we did was - it was sort of twofold. One, we tried to teach them how they could help rape victims, female rape victims. And, also, in so doing, it would try to decrease the likelihood that they themselves would go out and commit rape because as we instructed them, 84 percent of all rapes, especially college rapes, are acquaintance rape, you know, where the person has known the attacker for at least a year, usually.

ROBERTS: And, Jason, what messages did you find worked with those guys?

JASON: A couple of different things. A lot of times, the biggest question we got, actually, was, you know, what if you're both drunk? Like, where do the ethics lie? And a lot of times, we just had to sort of come down and say, well, if that's the case, the judge is probably going to side with the victim. So we would, you know, have to use legal - you know, legal punishments are there.

Also, we said, you know, these women - because we said it's one in four women. Like you were saying before, one in every four women will experience rape or attempted rape by the time they're 21. And we said these people could be your sisters, your girlfriends, your best friend, you know?

So, usually - and then the biggest thing was we try to get them to empathize. Ours was the only one that we showed a video where a police officer explained the situation where a male cop was raped by two male criminals who were both straight, who were not gay. So that way, it sort of puts - it helps the students who were talking to to empathize with the rape victims, because usually when you try to tell them a story of a female getting raped, it sort of increases the likelihood that they're going to go out and rape because they think about the power that they could have over the person. Because that's what rape is really about, is power.

ROBERTS: Jason, thank you so much for your call.

We also have an email that I want to get to from Ginger in North Carolina. It says: I attended North Carolina State and had a close male friend accused of rape. After hiring a private investigator, it was discovered that the female had a history of false allegations and there were a lot of holes in her story. As a woman, I hate to hear that victims of sexual assault and violence are suffering in the aftermath. I fully support the perpetrators of these crimes be punished. However, it does happen that some of the allegations are false and we must do our due diligence in investigating these cases. Charges brought can ruin the reputation of an accused forever. We do need to be sure the accused are guilty before imposing harsh punishments.

Kristen Lombardi, did your report address any of those issues?

ROBERTS: Well, we did not come across anybody who was accused, who is -well, we came across people who were accused who said the sex was consensual, for sure. But we never came across anybody who was exposed for making false allegations. We talked a lot with college administrators who said, you know, we do need to recognize that that is a reality. It's a slim reality. But because, you know, people - the number of women who make false claims in rape cases is a very low percentage just through research - research shows that. And college administrators that I spoke with were aware of that, but they said, you know, it does exist. We need to provide rights for the accused.

One of the reasons why the confidential process was defended by college administrators was exactly this concern. We have to have a process where somebody can be found responsible first. And, you know, that's what we need. We need to make sure this actually happened before we tar and feather the person.

ROBERTS: Kristen Lombardi is one of the authors of a new study by the Center of Public Integrity. You can read it. There's a link to the study at our Web site, Kristen Lombardi, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LOMBARDI: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thanks also to Connie Kirkland, director of sexual assault services at George Mason University. Thank you so much.

Ms. KIRKLAND: And thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Coming up, making climate change a little less confusing. NPR's Richard Harris shares a climate change reading list. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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