NPR Story
3:29 pm
Fri March 7, 2014

New Rules Press Colleges To Improve Sexual Assault Procedures

The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act takes effect today. It holds institutions of higher education responsible for the prevention of sexual violence, not just responding to it after assaults occur.

It also establishes standard procedures for disciplining those found guilty, and requires greater transparency on sexual violence policy and procedures, not just about rape but also domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

The Obama administration’s new Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault comes out with its best practices next month. The response comes as a growing number of female victims are accusing their institutions of mishandling sexual assault cases. Last month, the White House reported that one in five women students on college campuses will experience sexual assault.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, whose institution recently held a national conference on sexual misconduct, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the issue. Students at her university are also calling for sexual assault to be made a University honor offense.

Interview Highlights: Theresa Sullivan

On what needs to be done on this issue

“It is clear that we have a need for greater education. One of the things we learned is that a woman is most likely to be subject to a sexual assault during her first three weeks on the university campus, and that suggests that there’s much more that we could do in terms of orientation and preparation of young women even before they arrive here. It made me wonder if maybe there’s not more that could be done at the high school level as well.”

On the student petition asking to make sexual assault an ‘honor offense’

“The university has an honor code that dates back to the 1840s, and students who matriculate here promise that they will not lie, cheat or steal. If they’re accused of that, they are judged by a jury of their peers, and the only sanction is expulsion. The honors system has been entirely delegated to the students. And so the petition is not to the university. The petition is to the honor council because only the students can make this decision.”

On the view that sexual assault should go through the criminal justice system

“Well, I would say that, you know, certainly here at the university we encourage a survivor to make use of the police and the criminal justice system if that’s what the survivor wants to do. We make all those options as transparent as we can, and some survivors do choose to go to the police, some choose not to. Some prefer simply to undergo a course of counseling. Some of them prefer not to do anything.”

What steps are taken at UVA when someone is sexually assaulted?

“One of the things we try immediately to do is to offer a range of services, certainly including medical, psychological, the option to take forensic evidence if that’s necessary. The first person you talk to is very critical to the path you eventually take. If you are discouraged or embarrassed or shamed by that first encounter, you’re likely not to do anything at all. So, we try to make certain that the first person that the student encounters is somebody who is well trained.”

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

New rules take effect today that hold colleges more accountable for dealing with sexual violence on campus. One in five female students are said to be victims. The Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act requires participating schools to meet strict standards for reporting crimes and to provide victims with written versions of their rights. It also sets minimum standards for college disciplinary procedures.

The rules come into effect as a growing number of young women have been filing federal complaints against their colleges for mishandling sexual assault cases. And next month, President Obama's new taskforce on this issue will come out with its recommendations.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan recently held a national conference on this subject, and she joins us now from her office in Charlottesville. President Sullivan, welcome.

TERESA SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, what grade would you give your own university, the University of Virginia, when it comes to dealing with this issue of sexual assault on college campuses?

SULLIVAN: I would hope that now we get at least B. I'm not sure we would've always deserved a grade that high in the past.

HOBSON: Why just a B? What brings you down?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think we've been learning a lot as we go along, and I believe we have been improving our procedures and practices. I think one of the things that we learned was that we need much more in the way of research and evidence-based practice. And we hope to develop more best practices in this area.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think needs to be done on this issue, first and foremost?

SULLIVAN: It is clear that we have a need for greater education. One of the things we learned is that a woman is most likely to be subject for sexual assault during her first three weeks on the university campus. And that suggests that there's much more that we could do in terms of orientation and preparation of young women even before they arrive here. It made me wonder if maybe there's not more that could be done at the high school level as well.

HOBSON: Well, and I know that there's a petition going around at your campus, asking the university to make sexual assault an honor offense. Tell us what that means and why it is not one already.

SULLIVAN: The university has an honor code that dates back to the 1840s, and students who matriculate here promise that they will not lie, cheat or steal. If they're accused of that, they are judged by a jury of their peers, and the only sanction is expulsion. The honor system has been entirely delegated to the students, and so the petition is not to the university. The petition is to the Honor Council because only the students can make this decision.

HOBSON: But the peers is interesting because many people say that that is one of the problems with sexual assault, is that it's dealt with on the campus level rather than through the criminal justice system.

SULLIVAN: Well, I would say that, you know, certainly here at the university, we encourage a survivor to make use of the police and the criminal justice system if that's what the survivor wants to do. We make all those options as transparent as we can. And some survivors do choose to go to the police, some choose not to. Some prefer simply to undergo a course of counseling. Some of them prefer not to do anything.

HOBSON: Can you walk us through, President Sullivan, the steps that are taken when somebody at the University of Virginia says that they were assaulted? What happens?

SULLIVAN: Well, one of the things that we try immediately to do is to offer a range of services, certainly including medical, psychological, the option to take forensic evidence if that's necessary. The first person you talk to is very critical to the path you eventually take. If you are discouraged or embarrassed or shamed by that first encounter, you're likely not to do anything at all. So we try to make certain that the first person the student encounters is somebody who is well trained.

HOBSON: And how often is the assailant dismissed?

SULLIVAN: I don't have the exact figures about that. You know, in our system, particularly if the informal system is pursued, which is the survivor's option, sometimes alternative punishments are arranged other than dismissal. If it goes to the criminal system and there is a conviction, then dismissal is pretty likely.

HOBSON: How common is it that it's not reported in the first place, that the assault is never even reported by the victim?

SULLIVAN: I think it's very difficult for us to know that for sure. There are some data which indicate that a large number of the assaults never get reported.

HOBSON: When we hear the numbers of the amount of students who have been victims of this, it's shocking at how many women especially on college campuses have been the victims of sexual assault. Why do you think that is?

SULLIVAN: I think that there is more willingness now to talk about it, and there is less stigma associated with being a survivor. And I think that's one of the reasons people are coming forth. I don't know that the numbers are actually higher now than they ever were. But I think that there's much more willingness for people to address the issue and talk about it.

HOBSON: But I have to say, just from a personal level, I don't know anyone personally - and I may just not know that they did it. But I don't know anyone personally who has been an assailant in one of these cases. But given the numbers, it seems like we probably all know someone who has.

SULLIVAN: We might. It might also be - and some people do allege that there are serial perpetrators. And so it's not necessarily that there are a large number of men assaulting, but there are a large number of assaults by a small number of men.

HOBSON: So it's important that, of course, these cases come forward, because those people may assault again.

SULLIVAN: That's certainly one reason that we heard articulated, I think, very clearly by some of the survivors who spoke, yes.

HOBSON: Well, do you think that whatever comes out of this taskforce from President Obama can finally get this problem to become less of a problem?

SULLIVAN: I certainly hope that we're going to be able to come forward with more best practices that will help us in prevention, and also in education. So - because the very best outcome would be that we could prevent these assaults from ever happening.

HOBSON: University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan joining us from Charlottesville, Virginia. President Sullivan, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And just a note, Jeremy: Yesterday, you did a lovely story about the history of the Midwest.

HOBSON: Or lack thereof.

YOUNG: Right. One of your guests says there was no place to study Midwest history. Listeners disagree.

HOBSON: That's right. Actually, they say that there are some places: The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. There's a magazine called Midwest Living magazine, and somebody suggested the Missouri Historical Society.

YOUNG: Well - and we hear "Wichita Linemen" approaching, because we also asked you for photographs of the Midwest. Oh, we've got some beauties. Patrick Pearket(ph) from Wisconsin sent some. K. Buck Wheatley(ph) has one of south-facing bedroom window in Illinois. We got a picture of little Traverse Bay in Bay Harbor, Michigan, from Lisa Alfano(ph).

HOBSON: And you can send us yours at hereandnow.org. We're going to be putting together a Tumblr post, which will be up tomorrow.

Right. Liz Kilner(ph) sent us a couple from the Mississippi Valley in Davenport, Iowa. Beautiful.

Absolutely. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.