Report cites campus culture of secrecy about sexual assaults
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A series of reports by the Center for Public Integrity argues that college women who are sexually assaulted often find themselves in a campus culture of secrecy, with barriers to reporting and taking action.
"Many victims don't report at all because they blame themselves or don't identify what happened as sexual assault," the report stated.
Local criminal justice authorities regularly shy away from such cases because they are 'he said, she said' disputes sometimes clouded by drugs or alcohol. That frequently leaves students to deal with campus judiciary processes so shrouded in secrecy that they can remain mysterious even to their participants."
The center, an investigative journalism organization, based its conclusions on a survey of 152 crisis services programs and clinics on or near college campuses, 48 officials familiar with the college disciplinary process, and 33 female students who reported being raped by other college students.
Last week, the center released a series of reports called "Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice." The reports can be found at www.publicintegrity.org.
"Students who report being the victim of sexual assault on their campus face a depressing litany of barriers that offer silence or leave them victimized a second time," Kristen Lombardi, one of the authors, said in a phone news conference last week.
During a five-year college career, one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape, according to a U.S. Department of Justice estimate in a 2005 report.
The federal estimate is based on extrapolating over a five-year college career figures showing that 3 percent of all college women become victims of rape or attempted rape in a nine-month academic year.
In Pennsylvania, 226 forcible sex offenses -- most in residence halls -- were reported in 2007 by 542 post-secondary schools as required under the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act.
The figure likely is a "small fraction of the scope of the problem," said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit campus safety advocacy organization that was formed by the parents of Ms. Clery, who was murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986.
He said getting victims to come forward is still a challenge for various reasons, including peer and other pressures in an insular environment and a lack of belief that help is available.
The Clery law requires, among other things, that all campuses participating in federal student aid programs provide education programs to promote the awareness of rape, acquaintance rape and other sex offenses.
In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, is trying to win support for legislation that calls for rape and sexual violence awareness programs for all students entering a Pennsylvania college or university for the first time.
He introduced it in 2007, but it did not become law. Introduced again this year, it passed the House with 196 in favor in May and is in the Senate Education Committee.
The bill states, "The first few months of the freshman year are the most dangerous for new female and male students because of the availability of drugs and alcohol, the absence of parental supervision and a lack of awareness of sexual violence."
Tor Michaels, chief of staff for Mr. Conklin, said, "A lot of times, for freshmen coming into campus, this is the first time they're on their own, completely on their own. We feel that an added layer of education as to what is permissible is needed."
Mr. Michaels said, "Will this stop all the sexual assaults from occurring? We're not that Polyanna-ish. We need to do everything to make sure the freshmen coming into our institutions of higher learning understand the issues and, hopefully, it will at least get to some of them."
He said the proposal is modeled off a Penn State University awareness program.
Peggy Lorah, director of the Center for Women Students at Penn State in University Park, said its awareness program, begun more than 15 years ago, provides information on sex assaults and safety to incoming students when they visit the campus for a day in the summer to register. The information includes legal ramifications, how to get help and the fact that alcohol is involved in many assaults.
Over the years, the program has expanded to include other campus life topics. Last summer, an optional online component was added as a pilot program to educate students about sex assaults.
Students now get a business card at the summer program that lists where help is available and, when they arrive in their dorms, they find a magnet with the information on their room refrigerators.
"I think it's crucial information for any college student to have," Dr. Lorah said.
She said Penn State tries to tackle the problem in a number of other ways as well, including additional communication efforts, judicial affairs, residence life, counseling and psychological services, and training for faculty and staff.
"I know that we have worked really hard here to make sure that we have a system that is as sensitive to victims' needs as possible," Dr. Lorah said. "If I had one wish, it would be that no one ever had to experience the victimization of sexual assault."
First Published December 7, 2009 12:00 am