Colleges nationwide dealing with sexual violence investigations, complications

A group of Kansas University students has broadcast to the world via YouTube that KU is unsafe because of the way the school has handled sexual assault allegations.

But KU isn’t the only school under the scrutiny of those who are trying to reduce sexual violence.

Victims at colleges across the nation are coming forward, complaining that their schools have failed to protect them and to investigate their allegations.

“It’s an evolving matter,” said Robin Hattersley, executive editor of Campus Safety Magazine.

“Before, students didn’t even know they could turn to the school, and now they know they can get the perpetrator disciplined. There is quite a bit of confusion on the institution side on what they should do, what is an appropriate punishment. A college campus is much different than a law enforcement agency or a prosecutor, and up until recently universities haven’t had to deal with that,” she said.

Over the past two years, a group called End Rape on Campus has worked with students filing sexual assault allegations at more than a dozen colleges, some of them among the most prestigious in the nation, such as the University of California at Berkeley.

Many colleges are revamping their policies on sexual violence and discrimination, as KU announced it would do last week.

The changes are fueled by increased recognition of federal laws, increased awareness of the widespread incidence of sexual assault on college campuses, and changes in the way society views rape and consent to have sex, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel with the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center.

“It has always been an issue,” Bruno said. “Everywhere, colleges are getting up to speed on the law and trying to figure out policies and protocols,” she said.

Yes means yes

In response to the problem of rape on campuses in California, the Legislature there has passed a bill that would require students engaging in sexual activity to have affirmative assent from both parties. The so-called “Yes Means Yes” legislation says that a person’s silence, a lack of resistance or consent given while intoxicated, unconscious or asleep does not constitute assent.

At the federal level, the Clery Act requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses, with specific requirements dealing with sexual assault reports. And Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at schools that accept federal funds, also covers complaints based on sexual harassment, assault or rape.

Recently at KU, advocates have expressed concerns over the case of a student who said she was raped and complained that her alleged assailant was given a lenient punishment. And more women have come forward saying a rape culture at the school exists that allows sexual violence against women.

A group of students last week posted a video that said, “KU is not a safe place for students and no high school seniors should enroll here until it is.”

As far as reported incidences of sex offenses at KU, the school’s totals are in line with other similar-sized schools.

At KU, there were three reported on-campus sex offenses in 2012, two in 2011 and five in 2010, according to criminal offenses reported by the Kansas University Public Safety Office.

Kansas State University reported one sex offense on campus in 2012, seven in 2011 and 6 in 2010. At the University of Missouri, there were six sex offenses reported in 2012, 11 in 2011 and five in 2010.

But experts say rape is an under-reported crime. A White House task force said earlier this year that nationally one in five female students is assaulted.

Chris Keary, assistant chief of police services for the KU Public Safety Office, said victims often don’t want to come forward because their assailant may be a friend.

“There are all sorts of reasons they don’t want to report it to the police,” he said. And, he said, alcohol abuse is often a factor in incidents of sexual assault.

“Alcohol is a problem in our society and that is reflected on our campus and with our students,” he said.

He said students need to be on their guard both against potentially dangerous situations that may involve strangers and potentially dangerous situations that could involve acquaintances or friends.

Keary said, “Overall, KU is a safe place but sometimes bad things happen.”

Options besides the police

Keary noted that if a victim doesn’t want to go to the police, there are other options.

At KU, the Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access investigates Title IX complaints, including those alleging sexual assault. The office was established two and a half years ago and so far has looked into more than 30 complaints of sexual violence.

KU, however, also is among 76 institutions nationwide that are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for a complaint filed under the Title IX provision.

Bruno, the attorney with the Victim Rights Law Center, said most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and that complicates the issue.

“The individual who is victimized often takes a long time to figure out what really happened. There is also a lot of self-blame,” she said.

Hattersley, the executive editor of Campus Safety magazine, said she believes most college administrators are trying to do the best job they can, often under difficult circumstances.

“These kinds of instances are very difficult to investigate and prosecute because a victim often doesn’t remember what happened, or the story changes.

“If campus police and campus administrators are not properly trained to respond and handle these cases, they may be making mistakes,” she said.

Special report: Sexual violence on campus

More stories from the Journal-World’s Sept. 14, 2014, focus on an alleged rape of a woman in a KU residence hall and the issue of sexual assault here and on campuses nationwide.

KU, prosecutors face challenges in rape investigations

Colleges nationwide dealing with sexual violence investigations, complications

Alcohol and sex can create a dangerous mix on campus

Title IX changing how campuses handle sexual assaults