“A Culture of Indifference”: Report on Campus Sexual Assault Reveals Inaction Taken by Schools, Education Department

In December, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report not only about the fact that 95% of college campus rapes go unreported, but that survivors who do report often get no justice. Today, they have followed up with solid results from a year-long study, revealing that school judicial systems sanction little to no punishment for students responsible for sexual assault, often leading to repeat offenders. Via The Center:

The Center interviewed 50 experts familiar with the campus disciplinary process, as well as 33 female students who have reported being sexually assaulted by other students. The inquiry included a review of records in select cases; a survey of 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses; and an examination of 10 years of complaints filed against institutions with the U.S. Education Department under Title IX and the Clery Act. The probe reveals that students deemed “responsible” for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts. Yet their victims’ lives are frequently turned upside down. For them, the trauma of assault can be compounded by a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action. Many times, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate. Administrators believe the sanctions commonly issued in the college judicial system provide a thoughtful and effective way to hold culpable students accountable, but victims and advocates say the punishment rarely fits the crime.
Additional data suggests that, on many campuses, abusive students face little more than slaps on the wrist. The Center has examined what is apparently the only database on sexual assault proceedings at institutions of higher education nationwide. Maintained by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, it includes information on about 130 colleges and universities receiving federal funds to combat sexual violence from 2003-2008, the most recent year available. Though limited in scope, the database offers a window into sanctioning by school administrations. It shows that colleges seldom expel men who are found “responsible” for sexual assault; indeed, these schools permanently kicked out only 10 to 25 percent of such students.

That means 75 to 90 percent of total disciplinary actions that schools do report are minor, some so minimal it’s astounding — such as making them send a letter of apology to their victim or write a research report on sexual violence. That’s right, their punishment for sexual assault is to write a research paper. Other small sanctions are suspensions, social probation or counseling, despite the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women’s recommendations to its college grant recipients to train their judicial panels to give “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion.” One example is to the right, where survivor Margaux J. of Indiana University describes her experience with the campus judicial panel she participated in. (More on her case here.)
And the Education Department, which is responsible for enforcing both the Clery Act and Title IX, rarely investigates complaints of botched school proceedings. When cases do go forward by their Office of Civil Rights, there are rarely any sanctions made against institutions. “The full extent of campus sexual assault is often hidden by secret proceedings, shoddy record-keeping, and an indifferent bureaucracy,” says Center for Public Integrity Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. “Yet these are serious crimes that go largely unpunished. This is a troubling area of campus life that lacks much needed transparency and accountability.”
In the meantime, we have college newspapers printing pieces that blame rape victims and women’s magazines spreading the myth of “gray rape.” If we can’t rely on schools to hold students who commit sexual assault accountable, and we can’t rely on our Education Department to hold those schools accountable for their inaction, where does that leave us? This is more than troubling; this is a crisis that’s occurring on campuses across the country, and survivors deserve better.
Read all of their findings here.

Join the Conversation

  • Steveo

    I don’t understand why the school administration is involved at all. Shouldn’t all sexual assault, whether it happens on or off campus be a matter for the local law enforcement? I know there are lots of problems with that as well, but it has to be better than letting the schools deal with it right?

  • dckatiebug

    I’ve volunteered for sexual assault response crisis lines on two campuses, and in my experience, survivors who want to move forward with reporting — already a very small subset of all sexual assault survivors — can choose to report to the police, to campus officials, or to both.
    Survivors who want to more forward with campus proceedings often believe that the process will be quicker or less traumatic and allow for closure sooner. But in my experience, disciplinary board hearings can be very confrontational (accused assailants do sometimes hire attorneys, depending on the institution’s rules), but without the protections (eg rape shield laws), transparency, or rigorous evidence/testimony rules of a traditional trial.
    I understand why colleges and universities want to have disciplinary proceedings in lieu of or in addition to normal law enforcement/judicial hearings, but I just don’t think the current system works. At least it hasn’t at either of the schools I’ve been at, and this report raises serious questions about the efficacy nationally.

  • pesematology

    Yeah, it’s too much to expect universities to expel students whom it acknowledges have raped other students. Because that would be way harsh and universities just don’t expel people for confusing things like that.
    Unless they plagiarize a term paper. Now there’s something that should have consequences! Mandatory expulsion for plagiarism, because obviously universities can’t be expected to rehabilitate plagiarizers like they can rehabilitate rapists.
    Sargeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I’m sittin’ here on the bench, I mean I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.

  • daveNYC

    “That’s right, their punishment for sexual assault is to write a research paper.”
    Yes, but if they plagiarize the research paper, then they get kicked out of school.

  • daveNYC

    I undersand why colleges would want to use disciplinary proceedings too. It allows them to keep the official crime stats lower than they would be otherwise. I wouldn’t be surpised if it also gives them added flexibility to keep their sports teams fielding all their players.

  • gypsy

    It’s rediculous to have colleges involved in this at all. If I’m assaulted in a theme park, or walmart, or my apartment, the local police respond. Not Disney, or the greeter or my apartment manager. Why should a college be any different. It’s their job to educate. Not to stand in for the police and district attorneys.
    Having a campus proceeding just leads college students to believe it’s not that serious or that it’s “not really a crime.” (I work for a public college – our rules, the kids challenge and take as a joke; actual laws, those are more serious.) If it’s a crime, (which, duh, of course it is!) then it needs to be treated as such and not the same as a loud campus party or flunking a class.
    They shouldn’t have the option of being involved as disciplinarians at all. Rape and sexual assault is a matter for the police. Not a dean or security guard.

  • Suzann

    Excuse me – but I thought rape was a CRIME. Don’t crimes get convicted by courts and punished by judges? I mean, if I murdered someone on campus could I just as for a ‘disciplinary board hearing’ and maybe write a paper on how homicide is not very nice? (PS: I thought concealing knowledge of a crime was also a crime. Silly me. I guess some schools are just above the rules.)


    95% of college rapes go unreported – and, even of the reported rapes, 90% of the rapists get off with a pathetic slap on the wrist (writing a God damned research paper as “punishment” for RAPE!!!)
    That is beyond fucked up!
    It should be a national scandal that this country’s colleges and universities allow so many students to get hurt – and let so many rapists to go unpunished!

  • Z

    I really find your comment offensive. Do you have any proof to suggest that athletes commit more sexual offenses than other people?

  • Z

    Honestly, I think colleges being involved can be a good thing if handled properly. At my college, you could choose to pursue action with the police, with the school, or both. As it’s no secret that rapes go underreported, I think that this is really a good set-up. I don’t have to get the school involved if I don’t want. I also can have my school take action against a perpetrator without having a legal battle if I don’t want the publicity or don’t trust the police or if I don’t want to officially report for any reason. My school will do things such as issuing a no-contact order, etc. that can provide protection for me.
    I also think it’s empowering to have the choice of who to involve. You may think having the police involved is ideal, but not every rape survivor is going to feel the same way. Isn’t it better that the survivor gets to choose?

  • TabloidScully

    I’m having a couple of thoughts about this report.
    The first is that I also don’t believe having schools “handle” issues of sexual violence is a good idea, because it gives them too much leeway to completely blow the process, as evident from this report. Yet schools will try and convince students to opt for that route, to avoid a lot of publicity and give universities the sole control to keep that information come to the attention of their wealthy donors.
    The other is, while I appreciate the thoroughness that went into this report, I think a lot of the information-gathering was flawed. I was one of the students interviewed (because I did try to allow my college to handle the situation with my rapist) but because I didn’t have enough of a “paper trail,” I was excluded from being part of the ongoing testimony in name.
    Call me biased, but there just is something very disconcerting about a report uncovering the mistreatment of victimized college students that discounts the narratives of those who “don’t have enough evidence” to back up their claims. Credit to Kristen Lombardi for being diplomatic in explaining her reasoning behind it, but it never the less made me feel reduced, once again, to that false status of failing to be the “good” victim.

  • bartelbe

    This American idea of having a separate criminal justice system on campuses is incredibly disturbing. If someone is accused of a crime as serious as rape, they should be tried in a criminal court. They have the right to defend themselves, to hear the evidence against them in a fair trail. If they are found guilty they need to put in jail, not merely expelled from college. If they are found innocent by the court, that is it. Universities should not have the right to expel someone who has stood trial and been acquitted.

  • TabloidScully

    I think I have read before that Disney has tried to arbitrate these kinds of matters. I may be making this up, but I seem to recall an episode of sexual violence where the theme park wanted the victim to “let them deal with it.”
    I know Wal-Mart tried to do the same thing to some friends of mine. My good friend’s mother-in-law was groped while she shopped, and when she turned around to confront the person, he was exposing himself to her and her two younger daughters. When she flagged down another employee, they brought over the manager who assured her the employee would be dealt with, but she insisted on calling the police. Which I’m really glad she did. I can’t believe Wal-Mart, after taking the employee into the back room, tried to talk her out of it.
    Understand, if the employee had been mentally ill, it probably wouldn’t have gone to that extent, because one of the young girls is developmentally delayed. It turns out, he’s one of the few sex offenders who can apparently get a job in her part of the world.
    Still, creepy.

  • daveNYC

    That’s a bitchin’ strawman. I never said that athletes are more likely to commit sexual assault. However, if an athlete does commit a sexual assault (or any other crime), the school has a vested interest (bowl games bring in a lot of cash) in seeing that athlete continue to play for the team, which would usually mean some sort of cover up or a punishment that isn’t worthy of the name.
    All students are equal, but some are more equal than others.

  • Sarah.SAFER

    I’m in the process of writing about this report as a Board member of Students Active for Ending Rape, and will link to the piece in a community post as I think it addresses a few of the points raised here. But in the meantime, I encourage folks who are angered by/interested in the issue to check out V-Day and SAFER’s Campus Accountability Project, or contact SAFER for more info on what you can do at your campus.

  • EGhead

    I agree that the penalties they declare ‘sufficient’ for a rapist are ridiculous. The problem is, of course, that these cases aren’t going to criminal court and so these guys are still alleged rapists. How much power does a university have to punish an alleged rapist? How much power should they have? What about in the many cases in which personal testimony is the only evidence? This actually raises a lot of really difficult ethical issues for me. I know how rare it is for women to lie about rape, and my default position is to believe them and support them. But I really can’t justify punishing the men who have been accused, because I really believe in the doctrine of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ I realize how problematic that is given the state of our criminal justice system, but the alternative, to me, is even more problematic, and I think supporting the victim and punishing the accused are not mutually exclusive… especially when the jury isn’t made up of your peers, but (at my college anyway) just the Dean of Student Life. And, again, I think this is especially true when there is no evidence beyond one person’s testimony. Of course, the practical implications of this for the women are awful. I know, I’ve had that burden of proof before. But the practical implications of presumed guilt are absolutely no better.
    *Sigh* I dunno you guys, this is a really difficult issue. Mostly I just want to tell colleges to stay the fuck out of it.