NEWS

  /  

November 20, 2012

Investigative Series, Part IV: Sexual assaults that don’t reach hearings

This is the fourth installment of a quarter-long series on sexual assault, the third of which was published on November 13. It can be found here. The fifth installment was published on November 30 and can be found here.

Editor’s note: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.

Less than five percent of sexual assaults suffered by college-age women will be reported to campus authorities or the police. While the U of C has developed a multi-faceted system that encourages reporting of sexual assaults, most victims do not report or seek disciplinary recourse. In this installment we will be turning the lens on those who never go through the University’s disciplinary process, the different points at which a victim stops seeking formal redress, and the wider factors contributing to why victims do not pursue disciplinary action against their assailant.

Choosing not to report

Two thirds of victims of completed or attempted rape tell someone about the incident, but many turn to a friend or family member before an official figure. Fourth-year Molly Liu did not report an incident in University housing involving her then-boyfriend.

“I didn’t feel comfortable filing a report because it was something that was very difficult for me to talk about…. It was hard for me to talk about even with my closest friends, and even more difficult for me to talk about it with someone that I didn’t know as well. There also weren’t any easily available authority figures that I could talk to or I didn’t really know the structure I would have to go through. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of facing bureaucracy,” Liu said.

While there are many reasons why a victim would not report the crime, one of the most commonly cited by crisis counselors who work with students was a lack of understanding of campus processes, according to a 2009 national investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. The U of C has worked to surmount some of those barriers with initiatives such as the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call program, but students are not always put in touch with that resource.

“I wasn’t aware that one could file a report without pressing charges, although that’s something I know now. At that time it was very much something I very much wanted to leave behind me, not something to go through and reprocess,” Liu said.

At the fringes of the system

A student’s first interaction with the University is often through a more familiar point of contact, rather than initially connecting with a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call. These figures are often “Campus Security Authorities” as defined by the U of C in accordance with the Clery Act, which mandates publication of campus crime statistics. As those who bear “significant responsibility for student and campus activities,” housing staff, coaches, academic advisers, academic deans, and deans-on-call among others are encouraged to submit sexual assaults that are reported to them for the U of C’s official crime count.

But although these community members can serve as an entry point to a support system carefully cultivated by the University, that is not always the student experience.

A student in the College, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was sexually assaulted after her friends left her, heavily inebriated, on a street corner near her residence hall. The student blacked out due to alcohol consumption, and describes the night’s events through a combination of reports from friends and her own periods of awareness. The student then woke to find herself in a stranger’s bed in a fraternity house.

As the student flashed in and out of consciousness, the assailant forced his penis into her mouth and penetrated her despite vocalized protests:

“I remember waking up in and out of consciousness, and I remember telling him that it hurt, that I didn’t want it to happen, that I wanted him to stop. And I did say no, and it didn’t stop….”

The following night, having told no one about the assault, the student drank again and suffered a breakdown severe enough to alarm her Resident Heads, though they did not know its cause. She was sent to an area hospital, where she told her female Resident Head (R.H.) of the assault via phone.

“She didn’t really say much, she was just like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And same with my adviser—‘I’m so sorry that that happened to you,’ and then talking about my other issues.”

The student told her academic adviser of the assault via e-mail during the summer. Neither her R.H. nor her adviser referenced the possibility of a disciplinary process, though her assailant was a College student. Nor did either refer her to the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call or other University resources.

After a week’s stay in the hospital, the student took a quarter-long leave of absence. During that leave and the subsequent summer, neither University member whom she told broached the subject of her assault.

“No one spoke of it. Nothing from the school or anything. All of it was basically my own personal recovery plan. But recovery plan concerning various other issues; it wasn’t specifically about the assault.”

Asked about whether or not she had considered pursuing disciplinary action, she said, “I think that in my position I wanted to be reassured that it was an issue, that this date-rape type stuff happens a lot on college campuses, but the administration wasn’t doing that for me, so I was just like, well, if they don’t see it as a valid issue, then what’s the point of me doing anything? But I was always angry, I think that the main emotion that I’ve had is anger towards it.”

Resident heads and advisers were unable to speak on the record about training received on how to respond to sexual assault allegations.

Entering the official University system

If a student has been connected with a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call through various channels, they then access the U of C’s full support system for handling cases of sexual assault. If a student expresses a desire to explore a disciplinary hearing, he or she has a meeting with the Dean of Students of the division of the accused, where it is determined whether or not the accusation will evolve into a disciplinary hearing. Official University policy states:

“Based on the inquiry and in consultation with the Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services (or his/her designee), the Dean of Students has the discretion and authority to dismiss the complaint, to resolve the complaint informally with the parties, or to refer the complaint to the Academic Dean with a recommendation to convene an Area Disciplinary Committee.”

Although the Dean of Students has the ultimate ability to dismiss complaints, once meetings have been initiated the disciplinary option is always encouraged by University officials, according to Belinda Vazquez, Associate Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs and the Title IX Coordinator for Students.

“Sometimes a student is really concerned about whether they want to go to discipline or not. Even in those instances, we encourage that as an option. We always want to encourage that student to consider discipline as an option,” Vazquez said.

But one student’s case suggests otherwise. Olivia Ortiz, a third-year, met with the Dean of Students in the College, Susan Art in multiple private pre-hearing meetings in spring 2012 after being raped by a student she was dating. Ortiz reported feeling well served by the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call, but was dissatisfied with subsequent meetings with Art.

After Art met with the complainant and accused separately, she met with the two of them together, and informed the complainant that the University did not consider her case sexual assault. Her case did not result in a disciplinary hearing.

“I felt like I didn’t have the option of going to a hearing. I was told they did not consider my case to be sexual assault,” Ortiz said.

The University’s official policy, as per Illinois Law, makes no specific reference to the relationship between the victim and the accused. Art was unable to comment on this specific case or more generally about whether intimate partner violence is taken into consideration when determining whether a case is sexual assault.

“I remember her saying this wasn’t sexual assault in the meeting, and then I remember in the follow-up meeting too, I was kind of confused and I said, ‘Well, if this wasn’t sexual assault, is it bad that I came to you with this, was this too much for me to do?’ and she was like, ‘No, it wasn’t too much, because you were having troubles with another student, which I’m supposed to mediate.’ But she classified it as a ‘trouble with another student.’”

According to University official policy, “Mediation and/or informal resolution are not appropriate, even on a voluntary basis, in matters involving allegations of sexual assault.”

Art was unable to share what factors she uses to determine whether an allegation of sexual assault merits convening a disciplinary committee. In an e-mail, Art commented, “Our first concern with any such incident is the well-being of the person who has stepped forward with a claim of sexual assault…. At the same time, we open an investigation with the goal of pursuing the appropriate disciplinary action. Students are welcome at any time to bring concerns to me. There is no statute of limitations for hearing complaints such as these.”

The Maroon is committed to achieving as thorough knowledge as possible of all aspects of this issue. If you have information on the history of U of C’s policies with regard to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experiences relating to sexual assault and/or subsequent hearings, please contact us at hannah.nyhart@gmail.com or joycrane7@gmail.com.

MOST READ