Rape Epidemic in American Universities

Pradeep Banerjee for usareally.com 

Photo: unimelb.edu

Let’s get to the point straight: Rape is an epidemic in American colleges. It is not going to be solved soon because the colleges do not know how to deal with it.

College days should be the best days of your life. Independent for the first time, you’re surrounded by new people, new experiences and new knowledge. For many, it’s a time of exploration, self-discovery and knowledge accumulation. For others, however, the experience isn’t so pleasant. Reports after report have laid bare the brutal scale of sexual violence at American colleges: it seems as if the majority of students are not having such a good time after all. Sexual assault, groping, unwanted touching, harassment, coercion, and rape are all commonplace, it turns out, in American colleges.

Several national and international surveys have found that approximately 1 in 5 women gets sexually assaulted during their college experience. If nearly 10 million women in the United States attended a two- or four-year college in 2017, as estimated, that means about 2 million of them have been sexually assaulted or will be the target of a form of sexual violence as they work toward a degree.

Imagine a situation that you have 5 daughters, if someone were to tell you that if all of them went to college, by the time they finish their education, one of them will get raped, will you send them for a college education? This is the question we all need to ask ourselves. We also must ask ourselves and the leaders of our society that what are we doing to solve this problem. Keep asking till you don’t get a satisfactory answer on how to stop this menace. If we want a better America we must save the girls from becoming victims and put the perpetrators of such heinous crimes behind bars.

In January 2014, President Obama while announcing the constitution of a White House Taskforce to address the issue of sexual violence said: “Sexual assault is an affront to our basic decency and humanity. And it’s about all of us—the safety of those we love most: our moms, our wives, our daughters and our sons.”

The accompanying White House report noted, “no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”

What happens when a student reports rape or sexual assault to the college authorities?

Over the past decade, universities and colleges have clamped down on sexual assault on campuses at the federal government's urging. Rather than having to go to the police and report such cases, which at times can be a harrowing experience given the insensitive approach of our police, colleges and universities have offered students an alternative way to report incidents.

Instead of approaching the police, students can file complaints with the schools, go through a much faster trial-like process, and receive a ruling that may make their assailants disappear from campus.

This system is flawed. Even when a college through its internal investigation concludes that it has binding evidence that a rape occurred, assailants don't go to jail. Colleges don't have that power. Additionally, they use a lower standard of proof than criminal courts. Their rulings hold no weight except on their own campuses and can even be challenged in a court of law.

In most cases, the accused students get suspended for a couple of semesters. Rarely do they get expelled. And in most cases, are allowed back on the campus. They graduate, and join the workforce, while their victims remain scarred for life. American universities and colleges are revered organizations that produce Nobel laureates, world leaders, and innovators. Yet sexual assailants often manage to slip through the cracks. This has to stop.

An look into Yale University's investigation process divulged that more than 60 students in the past seven years filed formal complaints of sexual misconduct against fellow students, a number equal to the number of Nobel laureates it has produced since 1901.

In 15 of these cases, the university concluded following its investigation that "penetration without consent," "nonconsensual sex," or "intercourse without consent" had occurred. Of these 15 only five got expelled. The remaining 10 were either suspended, put on probation, or were handed over a written reprimand.

You read it right: Yale handed over a written reprimand to a student found guilty of a crime as heinous as rape.

If Yale is proud of its 60 Nobel laureates and flaunts the fact, it should be ashamed of its 60 sexual offenders and never fail to properly report such cases. This is something it does not do which is proven by the fact that the national non-profit watchdog group Security on Campus was forced to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education accusing the university of under-reporting cases of rape and sexual assaults.

Colleges botch sexual-assault hearings

Colleges often botch sexual-assault hearings and in its defense give the despicable logic that such hearings can destroy students' reputations among peers and haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Trials at colleges and universities are rather quick and the amount of evidence needed to decide upon the case is much different from what would otherwise be required in court. Also, the verdict a school reaches may be different from one a court would if it were to prosecute the same case.

The shortcomings in schools' sexual-assault procedures can actually allow the abuse to fester. This is evident from the Michigan State University's inept handling of a sexual-assault investigation against doctor Larry Nassar. In 2014, a female student complained to the school that Nassar massaged her breasts and vagina during a medical treatment. After conducting its investigation the university determined that Nassar's behavior was "medically appropriate."

Only after a legal process began outside the school's jurisdiction that the true extent of Nassar’s crimes came to light. Nassar was sentenced up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault.

Also, there is this fear among in the minds of the college administrators that cases of sexual assault might hurt the reputation of their institution. “There’s a real perception that when these investigations go public, that may send a signal to prospective students about problems associated with sexual assault and how universities handle claims," lamented Isaac Swensen, an economics professor at Montana State University. “That motivates some concern from administrators and perhaps even motivates a lack of transparency."

According to Swensen, this fear is unfounded as he found out in his research.  What Swensen found was that such investigations do not seem to hurt the bottom line for colleges, the colleges, in turn, see an increase in applications and enrollments after an investigation is opened. The college’s reputation somehow seems to get a boost when there's an investigation, maybe arising from the fact that people see it as a proof of the institution’s transparency. Interestingly, the post-investigation surge could be seen both among male as well as female students.

Effects of sexual-assault incident on a victim

The impact sexual assault has on students cannot be overestimated. Alongside significant drop in self-confidence, the trauma affects the mental health and social life of the student. Many students felt unable to continue their studies with a quarter of respondents saying that they skipped lectures and tutorials, or dropped modules to avoid perpetrators; 16% suspended their studies or dropped out altogether.

Another study found a correlation between the severity of the sexual attack and the women’s grades. Victims of rape had lower GPAs after the assault than what they had before they got assaulted.

It's morally imperative for colleges to fix this

Rape incidents are one of the most difficult to investigate, both for colleges and for legal authorities.

Often there is no physical evidence of the assault and victims very often are reluctant to share details with anyone after an attack, and in many cases, alcohol is a complicating factor. Whatever be the challenges of figuring out a better and just system is not just a college's responsibility—it is a moral obligation.

The colleges and universities rather than being supportive of the victim often try to look the other way. Survivors and their supporters have repeatedly alleged retaliation from universities for reporting rape. In one incident, the president of Columbia University tried avoiding shaking the hand of a graduating student who had made national news with her art project protesting the university’s unwillingness to expel a young man who raped her.

These institutions, with billions of dollars and tagged as charitable organizations have a duty to care for their students. Investing time, money and energy to come up with a solution to this looming problem should not be optional.  Why do families continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children there? To get raped? Certainly not. They send their kids to get a good education in a safe environment.

Another puzzling question is why is it that when a college finds evidence of a rape, the case isn't always escalated to legal authorities to investigate.

Universities should be ashamed that they are not doing more – now’s their chance to get it right.

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