Campus victims deserve justice outside of the criminal justice system

You may see teal ribbons, a symbolic expression of support for ending sexual violence, on jacket lapels and floating in the trees outside of the courthouse in Bellefonte this month. Since 2001, April has been recognized nationally as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

Sexual assault, especially on college campuses, has become a topic of national interest due to increased media attention, grassroots activism, and the willingness of brave victims to tell their stories. Beyond Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of children on Penn State’s campus, other high-profile stories involving college athletics have been reported recently. Jameis Winston, star quarterback of Florida State’s football team, was investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting another college student in December 2012. And this January, a jury in Tennessee found two Vanderbilt football players guilty of raping a college freshman.

Last year, Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University senior who was allegedly raped by a fellow student, began carrying her mattress around campus to raise awareness about sexual assault. In her endurance art project—entitled “Carry That Weight”—Sulkowicz carries her mattress as a symbol of the painful burden she still carries due to the sexual assault. She vows to continue to carry the mattress until her rapist is expelled or leaves the university. Inspired by Sulkowicz’s story, Penn State students created a similar event last fall. The students walked through campus and downtown State College with a mattress to show solidarity for other sexual assault survivors, including Sulkowicz.

The statistics surrounding sexual assault on college campuses are jarring. A 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice estimates that 20-25% of college women are victims of rape or attempted rape during the course of their college studies. 90% of these victims know their offender. Less than 5% of rapes or attempted rapes of college students are reported to law enforcement. And only two-thirds of victims tell someone else, usually a friend, about the crime. Nationally, according to Justice Department and FBI statistics, only 32% of sexual assaults are ever reported to police, with 2% leading to felony convictions and jail time for perpetrators.

At Penn State, 17 forcible sexual offenses were reported on-campus and 11 off-campus in 2013. This academic year alone, as of March 15, there have been 42 reported sexual assaults, with 19 of those reported to have taken place within the past two months.

While the rate of reporting is increasing, the numbers shed light on the barriers victims face when deciding to come forward and report. In addition to the fear that they will not be believed, victims also fear being ostracized. College campuses contain a unique peer culture: victims fear that they will become social outcasts since perpetrators are often within their same social circle. Internalized feelings of shame, or denial that someone they know and trust could have perpetrated a crime against them, may cause victims to persuade themselves that a crime did not occur. Some victims are aware of the consequences of moving forward with a criminal investigation, including the fact that it will take months or years before they see a jury, with a strong possibility that their perpetrator will walk away with no jail time. Many student victims would rather care for their mental and medical needs and successfully complete their college degrees than open the doors to pain, frustration, and re-traumatization in the criminal justice system.

Two major federal laws provide civil remedies outside of the criminal justice system for student victims of crime: Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 and the Clery Act. Title IX states that schools that receive federal funding cannot permit sex-based discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, like rape and sexual assault. Title IX mandates that schools must maintain certain procedures and protections for victims to remain compliant with the law. Student victims can file a private lawsuit against noncompliant schools to seek monetary damages and force the schools to act in accordance with the law.

The Clery Act requires that colleges and universities must accurately publish statistics related to crimes that have occurred on its campuses each year. The Clery Act also contains the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights, which requires that victims of crime on college campuses are notified of resources available to them and the disciplinary procedures available at the school. Failure to maintain compliance with the Clery Act can result in fines up to $35,000 per incident.

Currently, there are 94 colleges across the nation, including Penn State, that are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for Title IX violations related to the treatment of sexual violence on their campuses. A new documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” now showing in select theatres, highlights the violations of some of these universities by showing the lack of transparency in campus administration, the barriers student victims face in reporting their assaults, and the drive to seek justice under Title IX.

There has been pushback from defense attorneys, college administrators, and students themselves, who say that the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in college disciplinary proceedings violates accused students’ due process rights. A preponderance of the evidence means that a violation or crime occurred “more likely than not.” This standard is more lenient than the one used in criminal trials, which demands that the crime occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Other commentators believe that the higher education system is the wrong venue to decide these issues. All cases, they argue, should be referred to and handled by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. However, this argument does not recognize that all criminal disciplinary acts that occur on-campus, including burglary and simple assault, are decided by the same evidentiary standard. Title IX, moreover, already affords students the legal right to study on a safe campus, regardless of their choice to pursue criminal charges. Their physical safety, degrees, and potential careers should not hinge on a potential 3% prosecution rate.

On Penn State’s campus, students have organized Sexual Assault Awareness Week, which will run from April 6 through April 10 and will feature events addressing the needs of the student community. Many of these events will focus on consent, counseling resources, and police response. Often, though, victims are not made aware of the legal resources available to them. While attitudes and procedures are changing, including the new recommendations to President Barron from the Penn State Sexual Assault Task Force, more needs to be done to ensure student victims have access to justice.

Reprinted from VOICES April 2015 with permission.

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