After Assault, Some Campuses Focus On Healing Over Punishment College and university administrators are increasingly open to the concept of "restorative justice," becoming less dismissive of the idea that it's too soft on sexual assault.


After Assault, Some Campuses Focus On Healing Over Punishment

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In many cases of campus sexual assault, what victims say they want most is to get their assailants expelled so they never have to see them again. But some survivors say it would actually help their healing more if the offender took responsibility and apologized. That's usually closer to a pipe dream than a possibility. But some campuses are beginning to experiment with a process that aims to do that, getting students together for a brutally honest face-to-face reconciliation. It's called restorative justice.

It looks more like a therapeutic intervention than a trial. NPR's Tovia Smith reports it's gaining interest as the Trump administration is rethinking federal policies about campus sexual assault. And a warning, her story does include a description of an assault.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: To many, it's the ultimate indictment of how campuses are handling cases of sexual assault that so few victims bother reporting what happened to them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It wouldn't really have fixed anything. And it wouldn't have healed any hurt.

SMITH: This woman, who asked that her name not be used, was assaulted as a freshman. She says reporting it and going through a campus adjudication hearing to get the guy punished felt like too much pain for too little gain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's kind of that blind rage of like an eye for an eye type of thing. But that wouldn't have been fulfilling for me.

SMITH: Since that kind of trial-like process was all her school officially offered, she started working with an advisor informally on an alternative restorative justice approach. That process focuses less on judging or punishing the perpetrator and more on identifying the harm done and ways to repair it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What I really, really wanted was for him to step up to the plate and take responsibility and to be active in teaching others about this experience.


ALI: So this is me doing that. I have raped. I am a rapist.

SMITH: The perpetrator, who we're identifying only by his middle name, Ali, to help protect her privacy, complied. And he gave her the apology she wanted. He also agreed to turn their experience into a kind of teachable moment for others. And together, they produced a video to take on the road to everyone from his frat brothers to local high school kids.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please, see us...

SMITH: Looking into the camera, they each offered their take on how the assault happened in a way that's raw and relatable.


ALI: I thought she was a super cool, attractive girl who knew her way around the dance floor. We started making out and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And he pushed me against the wall and held me on his knee. I don't want to have sex, I say.

ALI: I was reading a lot of her hesitancy as nerves.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can't stop him, too big, too powerful, the tears are starting to come.

ALI: I explained that I wouldn't judge her and it would be fine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He would not let me up.

Writing the joint narrative that we wrote was really hard 'cause it was digging up memories. But then reading those out loud was, every time, really therapeutic. Just, like, those deep, dark secrets that you hold, the more people you show them to, the more light you shed on them, the lighter they become.

DAVID KARP: I've been surprised by how much interest there is across campuses in a restorative approach.

SMITH: Skidmore College Professor David Karp started promoting restorative justice for sexual assault after seeing it work in other cases of student misconduct. To start, he says, both parties need to buy in. Then a facilitator helps them figure out what would help repair the harm. It could be counseling for the perpetrator or a voluntary leave or, as in Ali's case, community service.

Karp says the current interest in using a restorative approach for sexual assault is a stark turnaround from just a couple years ago.

KARP: When I started, I was terrified. I thought that when I presented at conferences, you know, it would be tomatoes and hand grenades thrown at me.

SMITH: People tend to dismiss the restorative approach as too soft on sexual assault. But, Karp says, it's actually better at getting perpetrators to take responsibility for what they've done than the adversarial process. That, he says, only makes accused students dig in their heels and deny all wrongdoing.

KARP: We're trying to turn that on its head and create conditions in which it's possible for someone to really look in the mirror and say, this is what I did, and I'm going to take responsibility for it. And surprisingly, many people are willing to do that under the right circumstances. Many people are really quite remorseful.

ALI: I was - it was just this constant gut feeling of just pain and regret and guilt.

SMITH: Ali says he first started to realize what he'd done after going through a mandatory sexual assault awareness program at school. It was eating him up inside, he says, until the restorative justice process gave him an avenue to try and make amends by helping educate others about consent.

ALI: I felt like I could breathe again, I could be human. I wasn't just this monster that I was feeling like I was in my head.

SMITH: Ultimately, he says, that's better for everyone and far more productive then more trials and more expulsions.

ALI: If your school strategy is, OK, I'm going to kick this person out 'cause they assaulted someone, they've learned nothing. Now they're going to go to another school and continue the cycle of hurt.

SMITH: The federal government under Former President Obama requested proposals to design restorative approaches for campus sexual assault. The Trump administration calls the idea promising and plans to award some grants this fall. But many advocates are urging caution. Activist and survivor Emma Sulkowicz says the approach is not for everyone.

Sometimes, she says, trial and punishment is what's called for, like in the case of a guy on her campus who was accused of several assaults.

EMMA SULKOWICZ: I think that this person in particular, given his track record of person after person after person, I think it's clear that he is a sadist in the truest meaning of that word. So we just wanted him to get off campus.

SMITH: Sulkowicz says she also worries about who will facilitate the conversations. Given how campus administrators botched her trial process, she says, how will they pull off the more nuanced restorative justice approach? That concern is shared by Amy Foerster with the National Association of College and University Attorneys.

AMY FOERSTER: It is an issue of training. And you can do more harm than good if you have the wrong person doing it.

SMITH: Foerster also worries survivors might feel pressured into a restorative option. An accused student, she says, might be putting themselves in legal jeopardy if what they say in a restorative process can be used against them later in court. So as general counsel for Bucknell University, Foerster's advice is hold off.

FOERSTER: We've made the determination that it's not a direction that we're heading in at this time.

SMITH: Still, the approach is gaining momentum. The task force for the American Bar Association recently endorsed the idea. And it's winning over some who long dismissed restorative justice as too kumbaya, as George Washington University Law Professor John Banzhaf put it.

JOHN BANZHAF: Whatever we're doing now, it ain't working. Nobody likes the results. So let's try it. If this new-agey, touchy-feeling stuff doesn't work, fine. We can try something else. But by all means, let's at least try it.


ALI: I hurt her. I hurt her in a way that I can never take back.

SMITH: Meantime, these students continue to share their story, hoping to show the power of restorative justice for both healing and redemption.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I forgive you, I said, even as I laid wracked with sobs.

SMITH: If their painful journey could provide a roadmap for others going through the same thing or even prevent an assault from happening, these students say that would be healing in and of itself. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This story refers to Emma Sulkowicz as a survivor of sexual assault, as she considers herself to be. The accused in her case was found not responsible by a campus adjudication process.]

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