Blowing the Whistle on Campus Rape

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

The following, which highlights the work of campus anti-rape activists around the country, is excerpted from the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!

In January of 2013, Annie Clark, Andrea Pino and 65 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alleged egregious mishandling of sexual-assault cases, including their own, under both Title IX and the Clery Act. Pino had been raped at an off-campus party in 2012, resulting in a concussion, depression and PTSD. But when she applied to withdraw from her classes for medical reasons, the advising office told her she was “being lazy.” With similar insensitivity, a counselor told Clark that, “Rape is like football, and you’re the quarterback; when you look back on a game, Annie, how would you have done things differently?”

Similarly to Clark and Pino in 2013, University of Connecticut graduate Kylie Angell, along with six current UConn students, filed both Clery and Title IX complaints against their school for not properly handling their sexual-assault allegations. The classmate who Angell says raped her in her dorm room was expelled, but then was reinstated after the vice president of student affairs decided the explusion was “too severe.”

Clark and Pino have since created templates for Clery and Title IX complaints to assist campus activists across the nation. At our university, Occidental, in addition to the federal complaints, a group of students sued the college and later settled for an undisclosed sum. Attorneys are taking on similar cases at colleges across the nation, introducing group-based litigation as yet another tool in the movement.

Most campus activists worked with administrators for years to bring about change before making the difficult decision to call in the Department of Education (ED). For example, Yale students worked intensively on the issue with the administration for decades before filing a complaint with ED. According to Alexandra Brodsky of Yale, who filed a complaint with her school her freshman year after suffering an attempted sexual assault, “They were banking on our feminine forgiveness…we were supposed to be good little girls.” As Berkeley student Sofie Karasek (survivor of sexual assault and battery) puts it, schools “respond so poorly because…[i]t benefits them monetarily to make sure that survivors stay quiet and aren’t aware of their rights.”

The sheer number of campuses that have now fielded Title IX and Clery complaints would not have been possible without the advent of new communication technologies. Activists use blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Skype, etc., not only to share their own experiences of sexual violence and institutional betrayal, but to connect with others.

Tufts University student Wagatwe Wanjuki was a pioneer in this realm when, in 2009, she chronicled her assault and the school’s betrayal on her blog Raped at Tufts University. Tucker Reed at USC followed this model with her blog Covered in Band-Aids, and in 2011 Grace Brown started the “Project Unbreakable” Tumblr to document rapists’ statements to survivors. The next year, Ali Safran posted the “Surviving in Numbers” Tumblr, and Dana Bolger started the online magazine It Happens Here to document issues of sexual assault at Amherst. In 2013, Occidental’s Sexual Assault Coalition began posting survivor stories on its website.

Social media has also enabled campus activists to network in new ways, staying connected for free, in real time, via computers and mobile devices. For example, Clark and Pino used social media to reach out across the country—assisting other activists at Occidental, Swarthmore, Dartmouth, USC and UC Berkeley in filing complaints. An anonymous collective, IX Network, has more than 800 members at hundreds of colleges and universities around the world.

By August of 2013, formal groups had coalesced to share knowledge. We co- founded End Rape on Campus, for example, to assist campuses in filing federal complaints, while Amherst’s Bolger and Yale alumna Brodsky launched Know Your IX, which provides online resources for virtually every aspect of Title IX and Clery.

Many survivor activists report that their schools have made some changes in response to their efforts and federal complaints, but not a single activist we interviewed thinks their school is making the hard changes that are necessary. According to an April 2013 national SAFER study, half the students surveyed rated their school a C or lower in terms of handling sexual assault. Only 9.8 percent rated their school an A.

Activist Lauren Redding experienced the difficulties of trying to change school policies when she pushed for mandatory sexual-assault education at the University of Maryland—a campaign that was ultimately successful. “Some of the arguments against it were very frustrating,” says Redding. “People were asking, ‘What’s the price tag on this? Why do we need this? This sounds like a waste of money.’”

What would an A-rated school look like? The generally accepted opinion among activists is that it would start telling the truth about sexual-assault numbers, adopt best practices for new-student orientation, develop ongoing prevention programming and improve institutional conduct proceedings and support services.

The Campus SaVE Act will give the Clery Act more teeth than before because it will hold campuses responsible for preventing, not just responding after the fact to sexual assault. On top of that, President Obama’s new task force is charged with recommending measures to prevent sexual violence, raise public awareness of campus policies and hold schools accountable if they don’t address the problem. By around mid-April, the group should have reported back with best practices, along with increasing federal transparency, improved enforcement and better connections among federal agencies.

Laura Dunn, one of the primary advocates who helped develop Campus SaVE, is also pushing with other activists for the ED Act Now—a plan to give the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (ED) more tools for combating sexual violence. It calls for ED to publish a list of current and previous schools under investigation, the status of those investigations, additional guidance for same-sex assault/rapes and intermediate sanctions for noncompliant schools. The ED has only named one school noncompliant with the law pertaining to campus assault/rape, according to ED Act Now, even though a recent study from the National Institute of Justice suggests almost two-thirds of America’s colleges don’t fully comply.

With all these new tools and enforcement in play, what are the current best practices a college or university can undertake in order to create a more protective, safe and just atmosphere for students?

To begin with, according to campus activists, schools need to be honest and straightforward, informing students how to report sexual assaults and what their options are in regards to both campus authorities and law enforcement (activists believe that reporting to law enforcement should be at the discretion of the survivor, not mandatory). Campuses should compile an annual survey that measures sexual assaults/rapes and institute anonymous online reporting forms and a 24-hour reporting hotline. Rather than routinely suppressing and underreporting numbers, school administrators should be rewarded for the accuracy of their numbers and the percentage of survivors who report.

When it comes to prevention, new-student orientations should present a clear definition of consent, be very specific about sanctions for sexual assault/rape, require students to pledge that they will only engage in consensual sexual activity and encourage students to step in when they witness a problem.

Campuses should also have a clear policy that a student found responsible for sexual assault should be expelled. Keeping him (or, rarely, her) on campus places the student body in danger. It’s also imperative that colleges establish a national database of campus rapists so the perpetrators cannot simply transfer to other institutions.

When it comes to institutional disciplinary proceedings, a model campus should utilize trained staff independent of any department on campus. The process should take no more than two months (the Department of Education’s recommendation), and both the accuser and accused should be allowed to bring witnesses, present evidence and appeal findings.

Another key component of campus reform is providing services to survivors. Best practices include campus stay-away orders, so that survivors do not have to interact with their alleged perpetrators during the disciplinary proceedings; unlimited counseling services through the campus health center; and healing time away from classes without penalty. Research is needed to determine other ways that schools can keep survivors on campus after experiencing such a trauma. Moreover, schools must show they care more about survivors than about protecting the school’s image.

The struggle is far from over, but momentum on campuses around these issues is strong and growing. Schools can no longer rely on “those pesky activists” to graduate in four years and just “move on” with their lives.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wolfram Burner licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


About and

Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
Danielle Dirks is an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College. Trained both as a sociologist and a criminologist, her research focuses on the aftermath of violent victimization, survivorship and punishment. She co-authored How Ethical Systems Change: Lynching and Capital Punishment and cofounded  End Rape on Campus and the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition.