Sexual assault on campus: where to turn, who to trust - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Sexual assault on campus: where to go, who to trust

Sexual assault on campus: where to turn, who to trust

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)
MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) -

Saddled with a narrow scope and coupled with students' fear of reporting, a federal law designed to lift the veil off of sexual assaults on college campuses has ended up encouraging schools to under-report them.

Passed by Congress in 1990, the Jeanne Clery Act requires all colleges and universities which receive federal funding to report incidences of specific categories of campus crime, including sexual assault, to the Department of Education. The department publishes each school's campus crime data in The Campus Safety and Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool.

But the Clery Act only requires colleges and universities to report sexual assaults that happen on-campus. It does not require schools to report student sex crimes that either occurred off-campus or were investigated by agencies other than the schools' police departments and student conduct boards.

Laura Dunn, founder of the sexual violence victims advocacy group ServJustice, said the result is some schools ignore off-campus incidences in which school authorities could have intervened by either protecting a student or verifying the truth of a student's allegation.

"We have such a desire not to address campus sexual violence," Dunn said. "To excuse it, to normalize it. to think that acquaintance rape is somehow less traumatizing to survivors than stranger rape. and because of that we actively un-do investigations. We actively avoid serious prosecutions and hearings on this issue."

V. Latosha Dexter is the director of the University of Memphis Office for Institutional Equity. Her office initiates the investigations of sexual assault reports involving U of M students as either victims or respondents. She illustrated how the Clery Act falls short in providing an accurate portrayal of campus sex crimes.

"Since I took over the office in February, we've had two sexual assaults with penetration reported (and) two sexual assaults, non-penetration," she said. "The two sexual assaults with penetration are still on-going, so those investigations have not concluded yet. The sexual assault, non-penetration both, they were not expelled, but it resulted in corrective action from student conduct."

But we discovered -- and Dexter confirmed -- that two of those sexual assaults would be missing from the university's Clery report as accessible through the online database.

"They involved our students, but neither occurred on campus. Because they are off-campus, they wouldn't be reported to Clery," said Dexter.

Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women's Council, said there's another reason the Clery numbers are misleading. "The way those numbers can be misleading is most rapes are not reported," Clubb said. "There's humiliation, embarrassment, fear, and there's also just an unwillingness to deal with the questioning, the testing, the questioning some more." 

That's why Dexter's office works closely with the U of M's campus police department, the student health office, student conduct officials and student advocacy groups like Heals to encourage student victims to come forward and to provide due process to respondents accused of sexual assault.

"I have my own personal story of sexual assault," said Heals founder and president Tori Hill, a U of M senior in management and psychology. "It actually happened from the time I was in the first grade until I was in the seventh grade, and then I finally got the courage to tell my dad what was going on."

Hill uses her personal experience to help students who contact Heals to break through their fear and embarrassment and report their assaults either to Dexter's office or to other campus authorities.

"We're reaching out to survivors and telling them, 'You don't have to be ashamed of it. This isn't your fault. This happened to you,' and so we want to remove the stigma," she said.

"Students aren't always comfortable coming forward, especially to someone who is not a peer," Dexter said. "I think they are going to be a great resource for students."

To account for the Clery Act's reporting limitations, more colleges are publishing their own campus safety reports on their schools' web sites. The University of Mississippi's campus safety report lists every off-campus sex crime involving a student within the same year range as Ole Miss's Clery report. Cases investigated by the Oxford Police Department, the Lafayette County's Sheriff's Office, even off-campus sex crimes reported by faculty members -- Ole Miss publishes them all in a commitment to transparency and to more accurate sexual assault reporting.

"We want the public, prospective students and family to get a true representation of what the campus community and what the surrounding community is," said University of Mississippi Campus Police Chief Tim Potts.

Potts and the Ole Miss administration join forces with student advocacy groups like the 200-student strong Rebels Against Sexual Assault and the university's Violence Prevention Office to provide direct services to student sexual assault victims.

"I can make academic accommodations, housing accommodations," said Lindsey Bartlett Mosvick, project coordinator of the Violence Prevention Office. "I can accompany them through the criminal justice process or the student conduct process. It's really whatever that student feels is best to feel safe on campus."

Congress is considering broadening Clery's reporting scope. A bill titled The Campus Safety & Accountability Act would establish new campus resources and support services for students, create new reporting requirements and re-design the on-campus disciplinary process. 

"It says let's make sure there is a trusted adviser that can advise both somebody who's a victim, but also someone who's been accused, because we've got to make sure there's due process for both," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, (R) Virginia. "Trying to make sure that the college can't sweep these things under the rug, that they have to report the data in a clear and appropriate way…if the law forces that, so much the better."

HOW TO HOLD YOUR COLLEGE ACCOUNTABLE FOR REPORTING SEXUAL ASSAULTS:

* Request the school's campus safety report. You can still search the Clery database, but remember, it only reports on-campus crime incidences. You should search your school's own web site for a campus safety report or campus and fire safety report. It is typically posted as a link on the university police department's web page. You can also Google your college's name with "campus safety report." If you can't find one -- or there isn't one -- ask the dean of students why not.

* Research student advocacy groups. More colleges are supporting the formation of student groups dedicated to serving sexual assault victims and to shepherding them through the process of reporting the crimes. In addition to Heals, the University of Memphis also works with the student group 901 Feminists to assist student victims of sexual violence. 

* Report sexual assault to your college's student health office. Unless your school has a dedicated office for sexual assault reporting like Dexter's Office for Institutional Equity at the U of M -- or unless the assault merits immediate police attention --  students should report incidences of sexual assault to their school's student health office. Doctors, nurses and student health administrators are more likely to protect student confidentiality under medical privacy rules. They're also more likely to know who to contact next, be it the campus police or another law enforcement authority.

You can find additional resources for victims of sexual assault by clicking here.

Link to the search engine for campus Clery reports here.

WEB EXTRA:  what to do if you are sexually assaulted. Click here.

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