We Can Fix the Law Enforcement Landscape Facing—and Failing—Campus Sexual Assault Survivors

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“When I started college, I actually did not know that there was a difference between university police and those in Minneapolis,” remembers Abby Honold. “ I really thought that [campus police] only existed in the dorms and for parking tickets.”

That all changed in 2014, when Honold was raped across the street from campus during her junior year at the University of Minnesota.

After the attack, Honold was frustrated when she was told that the University’s police department—which had a better reputation for handling sexual violence than its metropolitan counterparts—could not investigate her case; she was left instead to deal with a team of law enforcement officers from the city who were poorly equipped to question her.

Carrie Hull, director of You Have Options (YHOP), a program that educates law enforcement agencies around the country about how to give survivors greater control over their reporting options, describes the law enforcement landscape on college campuses in just two words: “So confusing.”  When we speak, Hull, a former detective with the Ashland, Oregon Police Department, is in the midst of leading multi-day forensic experiential trauma interview (FETI) training at Dartmouth College as part of her role as certification director for the Certified FETI program. “Just, who do [students] report to, if they even want to,” she explains, “can be its own barrier.”

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice in a 2014 Special Report, part of that year’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), reveal that only 20 percent of female sexual assault victims aged 18–24 reported the incident to law enforcement. That number represents an epidemic of underreporting, yet “forcible sexual offenses” constitute up to a quarter of all crimes reported on college and university campuses. Across the broader spectrum of sexual violence, reporting numbers are persistently low for a number of reasons, but on college campuses, a puzzle of legal options complicates matters further—and can deter due process.

According to the most recent statistics by the Department of Justice, 92 percent of public colleges and universities and 38 percent of private colleges and universities employ police officers on their campus. 62 percent of those officers are “sworn,” meaning they have pledged an oath to the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the state in which they work and are authorized to carry a gun and make arrests. It’s these officers who play the most central role during investigations of crimes that occur on campus.

If a sexual assault survivor does not seek to bring their case to the criminal justice system, there is typically no involvement by campus police. The investigation instead falls under the purview of a college or university’s Title IX office—thus becoming an administrative, rather than criminal, matter. If a survivor of campus sexual violence at any point decides to bring their case to law enforcement, that is typically when campus police will become involved. They then become responsible for conducting a criminal investigation, the findings of which they must present to a prosecutor who will determine if there is sufficient evidence to file charges.

“The systems [law enforcement and Title IX] can exist parallel to one another. Someone can utilize both, either or neither,” explains Sage Carson, manager of the campus advocacy nonprofit Know Your IX, whose mission is educating students about their legal options  and training them to empower others to end campus sexual violence. “Usually there’s limited interaction with one another unless someone uses both… and even then, the interaction is pretty short—and should be pretty short, because the systems do need to exist separately.”

All of this, however, depends on whether survivors report, whether campus officers are sworn and whether their jurisdictional boundaries overlap or run parallel to those of a metropolitan police force, as they did in Honlon’s case. And all that depends on how much survivors know about their own options and resources. “People [need that] understanding if they have something happen to them,” says Hull. “Who do they go to first?”

Every fall, first-year students at colleges and universities across the country participate in a range of orientation activities designed to introduce them to their new campus. While campus security, public safety and campus police departments are typically included in the events, it’s unclear whether the sessions are really equipping students with the information and tools they need should they find themselves victimized on or around campus.

“You’re faced with such an influx of information at [an] orientation,” says Carly N. Mee, who was raped at the start of her freshman year at Occidental College in 2009 and is now an attorney who works with sexual assault survivors, as well as the interim executive director of the survivor-support organization SurvJustice. “Are you really going to remember [all of it]? There’s [not] great training for students on what options for reporting are… The way that [students] find their way to campus police is typically with the help of [organizations like] Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, and being redirected over to [law enforcement]. But it’s not something they necessarily know to seek out on their own.”

The question of what authority figures  to seek out in cases of sexual assault on campus  can put survivors at risk for far more than just confusion. “Survivors having to repeat stories multiple times, thinking that they’re providing all the information they need to and then being told that they’re actually talking to the wrong person,” Carson explains. “It can be very re-traumatizing and isolating to have to repeat those stories over and over again.”

There’s also uncertainty among professors and staff, who may find themselves on the frontlines if a student chooses to disclose an incident of assault to them. On many campuses, such employees are mandatory reporters, meaning that if a student discloses an incident of sexual assault to them, they are required to report it to the school’s Title IX coordinator, or to the police.

It goes without saying that compelling a professor or administrator to report a crime hardly qualifies them to run point on a criminal case. A faculty member at a public university in the Mid-Atlantic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled learning they and their colleagues were all mandatory reporters.  “[Our] training consisted of an online module with quizzes,” they recalled. “I have a rough idea of who I would need to call if a student ever comes to me.” That “rough idea” is a major flaw in a system where there should be no room for ambiguity.

The specific requirements for mandatory reporters change from state to state, which Carson acknowledges is “confusing for teachers”—and dangerous for survivors. “You may escalate something to a point where a survivor doesn’t want it escalated,” she explains. “If someone [says] ‘I’m a mandatory reporter and I have to call the police’ and that’s not true [in the situation], you’re taking the power out of the hands of the survivor.”

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of colleges and universities consciously working to increase the campus law enforcement resources available to students. In 2014, the Not Alone Report published by the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault charged the Justice Department’s National Center for Campus Public Safety (NCCPS), along with the Office of Violence Against Women, with developing trauma-informed training for school officials, including campus police officers. Andrea Young, program and training manager at NCCPS in Burlington, Vermont, reports that the Center’s Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault and Adjudication Institute has worked with almost 300 organizations since its launch, most of them colleges and universities. “There’s been an interest from the beginning,” Young tells Ms. “And as people have learned about our program, it’s only grown.”

But even in that arena, hurdles remain. “We are government funded, and our funding expires next year,” Young admits. “We have not been given another allocation at this point.” She cautions against assuming that the program’s funding cut is a casualty of Trump administration policy, and emphasizes that the center’s broader mandate falls outside the scope of sexual violence. But coupled with moves by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to roll back Obama-era protections for campus survivors, it would seem that a lack of support for any program for survivor justice—and certainly one backed by the resources of the federal government—is an attempt to widen the already dangerous cracks in the current systems.

“There are definitely [campus police departments] out there that are taking the initiative to get those trainings, especially on Title IX and the Clery Act,” says Mee. But these departments, like the one Honold referenced at the University of Minnesota, are not in the majority at a time when just one-fifth of campus rapes lead to prosecution.

“Often, I think [campus police] are not properly trained,” Mee tells Ms. When it comes to trauma-informed training, she explains, “there’s a requirement that they be trained, but [are they] always fulfilling that? No. It’s extremely important that [campus police] be trained on how to properly speak with victims and get that information out so they can best facilitate an interview that can possibly lead to charges.”

These realities are as confusing as they are maddening. “If [survivors are] met with a barrage of questions, that can make them doubt themselves, or if they’re asked to recall things they may not recall because of trauma, or because there were drugs or alcohol involved… that can set the stage for the whole case to go differently,” says Mee. “You have to make sure institutions are supporting these efforts. You can never go back in time and get [destroyed evidence] again.”

Hull suggests that the first step is, “a police department that acknowledges [sexual assault] as an area that requires particular expertise and really thorough knowledge of the dynamics, both barriers to reporting and—once someone does [decide to engage with the criminal justice]  system… what does that mean?”

Law enforcement officials across the board tend not to know the answers—but there are signs that they are seeking them. Hull has been receiving requests for training from metropolitan and campus law enforcement agencies, and Honold is currently working with Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) office to enact legislation that would allocate funding for a pilot program to evaluate and train law enforcement officers in trauma-informed interviewing techniques.

Mee recounts confronting cases where campus police “failed to collect evidence promptly, or failed to inform someone about their option to get a rape kit”—and where she was frustrated by her limited ability to intervene. “You can never fix that,” she remarks. “It’s an institutional problem.”

Those institutional problems amount to much more than your standard learning curve. Justice delayed is justice denied, and survivors shouldn’t have to wait for their campus officials to serve it properly.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.