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Sexual Assault: The Nationwide Campus Crisis Hits Home In Illinois


Veronica Portillo Heap became an advocate for sexual assault survivors as a sophomore at the University of Chicago. She got an email from a group of students organizing The UChicago Clothesline Project, which offers survivors a chance to tell their stories on T-shirts in an annual art installation. Portillo Heap was not a survivor herself, but she thought getting involved as an organizer with The Clothesline Project would be worth her time.

Late in the following school year, Portillo Heap became one of the millions of women who are assaulted while in college. Then her involvement in The Clothesline Project became personal.

Researcher estimate one in five women on college campuses are sexually assaulted before they graduate. They are more likely to be raped than their peers who do not go to college. And 90 percent of them do not report their assaults.

Portillo Heap didn’t.

“By the time I was thinking maybe I wanted to report it to the police, it was a couple days later so at this point, there’s no evidence,” Portillo Heap says. “I just knew that they weren’t going to believe me. … I thought it would be this emotional thing where I actually don’t get anything out of it.”

College-aged women who are raped on their campuses have two reporting options. They can go to the police, or they can go to their schools. Rape is a crime that police officers can investigate. It is also a civil rights issue that schools must address. Because Portillo Heap’s assault happened off campus on a date with a nonstudent, she only had one option. Like many survivors, she decided the drawbacks outweighed the benefits of going to the police.

Increasingly, though, young women are coming forward to hold their aggressors accountable, especially through disciplinary channels at colleges and universities. And along the way, they are finding their institutions ill-equipped to respond fairly and quickly, as federal law requires.

The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education is investigating 78 higher education institutions, including the University of Chicago and Knox College in Galesburg, for their handling of sexual violence cases. Title IX, the law best known for increasing female participation in athletics, requires schools to provide an environment free of sexual discrimination, including assault. All schools must work proactively to prevent sexual assault and harassment as well as put procedures in place to respond to such cases as they come up. Victims must have access to a safe education following an assault, and colleges are required to provide that access.

At the University of Chicago and Knox College, student complaints initially prompted the OCR probes. Both investigations were ongoing at press time.

But the crisis of campus sexual assault is not isolated to the schools under review. And because of that, most colleges and universities across the country have introduced new policies and initiatives this school year, following up on guidance issued by the Office of Civil Rights last spring.

For perhaps the first time ever, there seems to be a concerted effort to stem the tide. Dr. Bernice Sandler, a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in D.C. and the so-called “Godmother of Title IX,” theorizes the latest round of attention can be traced to online communities. “Because of the web, survivors have been able to touch base with each other,” Sandler says. “They found, in a sense, their voices. They found out they’re not the only ones, and they’re not the only ones where the school handled it excessively badly.”

Schools received new guidance in April 2011 from the Department of Education specifically advising them of their responsibility to protect students from sexual violence under Title IX. In response to a task force report last spring calling on the administration to be transparent in its handling of such civil rights cases, the OCR released the full list of schools under investigation.

State governments have kept the momentum going, with a handful proposing or passing laws requiring schools to take specific preventative action and respond in certain ways to allegations of sexual assault. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe formed a task force to study campus sexual assault and come up with best practices in prevention and response.

And President Barack Obama’s administration has helped keep the issue in the headlines — spurred on by Vice President Joe Biden, who introduced the Violence Against Women Act when he was a U.S. senator in 1990. The Obama administration launched NotAlone.gov in the spring — following another task force recommendation — and now provides resources for sexual assault survivors, an enforcement map tracking cases on college campuses across the country and guidance for institutions in their policy-making.

At the end of September, the administration launched a second website, ItsOnUs.org, in collaboration with Generation Progress, a number of colleges and universities, the NCAA, celebrities and several media platforms. The campaign is meant to spur student activism on campuses nationwide and shift responsibility for sexual violence to the entire community. It advises bystanders to speak up. “It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what’s unacceptable,” Obama said in a White House event announcing the campaign.

Southern Illinois University launched an It’s On Us student task force in September, and the University of Chicago also committed to the effort, according to local newspapers.

As fall classes got underway at colleges and universities across Illinois, students returned to new policies and partnerships. Sean Black is the communications coordinator for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is a partnership among 29 rape crisis centers. These centers are involved in prevention education and freshman orientation activities, and they also provide direct services to victims of assault on campuses. Black says there has been more outreach to rape crisis centers by colleges and universities since the latest federal guidance came out. These partnerships help colleges audit their own policies and plan for improvements. Several colleges in the Peoria/Bloomington area have formed a working group to do just that.

The UChicago Clothesline Project gives sexual assault victims a chance to tell a piece of their story in an annual art installation. Survivors can design their own T-shirt or have one decorated for them.

Unfortunately, Black says, there still is much to be done. Federal law leaves room for interpretation, and colleges and universities often come to different conclusions as to their obligations. Additionally, these institutions are fighting a long history of wanting to keep their internal problems quiet. “Prisons are the same way, military is the same way, churches are the same way,” Black says. “No one wants the bad things that happen inside the family to get out.” But he sees hope. For a long time, a college’s first response was often about how to protect its own reputation. That seems to be changing, he says, and with the help of rape crisis centers, these institutions are being encouraged to figure out victim-centered responses.

Some colleges have had a long way to go. In Galesburg, Knox College didn’t have an active Title IX coordinator until last year. Allie Fry, a senior, sat in on twice-weekly policy meetings as the college worked to improve its procedures and get in line with federal law. She says campus activists have grown to feel like the burden is theirs to fix the problems on campus that prompted many — including Fry — to file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights.

“What about me being able to go to class and not have to think about how can our campus best prevent sexual violence?” Fry says. “It’s a careful balance. We want to respect student input and make opportunities for students to have an active role in the changes and be able to contribute, but at the same time, it is not the students’ job to make sure our policies are compliant with federal law.”

In the last year, Knox spokeswoman Megan Scott says the college has expanded its Title IX team, formed a task force on sexual assault prevention and response, provided training to those involved in disciplinary procedures, formed a confidential group for victims of sexual assault, formalized a relationship with a community-based crisis center, created a sexual assault response guide, conducted a climate survey on the issue and stepped up education efforts on campus. Scott says the administration plans to roll out a mobile safety app for students, implement new recommendations based on the results of the climate survey and take any action recommended by the Office of Civil Rights at the conclusion of its investigation.

For Fry, raising awareness on campus about sexual assault and being a sympathetic ear for her peers has become her “unofficial full-time job.” She sees that role as a privilege and says at times it is overwhelming to have the issue of sexual violence loom so large in her daily routine. Other times, though, she finds it empowering to know people don’t have to be silent.

“The more people who say ‘this is a real issue; let’s talk about it,’ the more we can get at dismantling rape culture,” Fry says. “Once we say ‘this is real’, how do we work to take this apart and foster a culture that is of consent and empathy, communication and respect?”

A major complaint about the processes for responding to allegations of sexual assault is that it can often result in reflexive victim blaming. Questions about a woman’s level of intoxication, clothing choice or degree to which she tried to fight off an attack seem to indicate the fault lies with her rather than the assailant. California recently adopted a law requiring all parties on college campuses to give “active consent” before proceeding to sexual activity. The goal is to change the culture from “no means no” to “yes means yes,” according to proponents.

A culture that teaches individuals to stop when they hear no leaves the responsibility on the receiver of a sexual advance. The reverse requires the advancing party to wait until he or she receives consent at each stage of sexual contact. While this has been criticized as going too far — requiring one student to ask another if she can kiss him, for example — supporters hope it will make campuses safer by forcing students to think in more active terms about consent.

The University of Chicago has made its own changes for this school year. A new sexual assault policy took effect July 1 that updated and unified two separate policies. The disciplinary procedures for adjudicating sexual assault also were revised so a universitywide committee will be appointed to handle allegations and members will receive specialized training. The university hired a new associate dean to investigate sexual assault cases and come up with new ideas for prevention and discipline.

Olivia Ortiz, the original complainant against the University of Chicago in the Office of Civil Rights investigation, says a major hurdle for the university will be overcoming a sense of denial. She says sexual assault awareness education for students rarely indicates an aggressor could be a peer. Instead, Ortiz hears the narrative that the overwhelmingly wealthy, white student population should be careful around the poorer, black community on the south side of Chicago.

“I think they are very reluctant to believe the students they so preciously choose each year can be assailants,” Ortiz says.

In her case, Ortiz says she was assaulted several times by a fellow student she had been dating. When she reported it to the sexual assault dean on call, she was referred to the dean of students of the college. Ortiz says she was encouraged to go through informal mediation rather than a disciplinary hearing. Mediation is not allowed in cases of sexual assault, according to federal law as well as the university’s own policy. The dean later said she didn’t realize Ortiz was reporting an assault. Her actions were in line with adjudicating a dispute between students. The experience was traumatic for Ortiz and ended in no consequences for her aggressor, who graduated the day after the mediation and simply told the dean he wouldn’t be back on campus.

When Ortiz sought legal counsel and was advised her rights had been violated, she decided to file a complaint. She hopes the OCR investigation prompts real change on campus, leaving it a safer place than she experienced as a student.

Black of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault says there are several aspects of college life that could be contributing factors to the high number of assaults. Young people are living in close quarters, there is a lot of nighttime activity and students are often on their own for the first time in their lives. Add to that a culture of silence around rape and poor socialization of men in relation to the acceptability of assault. Black says we need proper education for bystanders, and we need to teach men not to rape women.

“I know people don’t like it to be put so bluntly, but the statistics say men are the ones committing the vast, vast majority of sexual assaults on college campuses,” Black says. “If men stop raping, the numbers will go down.”

With the 2014-15 academic year barely under way, a fraternity at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was suspended for serving drugged drinks to certain female partygoers, identified with color-coded Xs marked on their hands. A Columbia University student is dragging around the dorm mattress on which she was raped until her school holds her aggressor responsible. An anonymous group of hackers calling themselves the UChicago Electronic Army hijacked a student organization’s website to publish a screed that threatened to “rape harder” in response to a list circulating on campus with the names of alleged assailants.

The problem is far from solved. But the nationwide scrutiny gives many hope. Sandler, the “Godmother of Title IX,” says women are more likely to talk about rape now and seek help, and people are responding differently to victims.

“We are in a different place than we were in as little as a few years ago,” Sandler says. “And that’s a good thing.”

Tara García Mathewson is a Chicago-based free-lance writer specializing in education issues.

Illinois Issues, November 2014

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