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Former University student examines possible surge in sexual assaults

Increased reporting could account for rise, officials say

A stranger attacked Caitlin Mahoney, a University alumna of the class of 2009, from behind as she left the Downtown Mall with a friend Oct. 17, 2010. The attack occurred in a well-lit, heavily trafficked area, just a few steps away from the Charlottesville Police department, Mahoney said. The following spring, Mahoney reached out to The Cavalier Daily in a letter to share her story and the research she later conducted in hopes of initiating a “loud, unified stance” against sexual assaults in the Charlottesville community.

In our backyard

Before the attack last October, a stranger at a fraternity house assaulted Mahoney during the first semester of her first year at the University.

“We basically nailed [the responsible individuals] to the wall, and the University was 100 percent behind me,” Mahoney said.

But Mahoney recalled a general lack of support from fellow students. She remembered students dismissing her case because of the influence of alcohol. Her friends and family questioned whether she was “doing the right thing,” she said.

“That illustrates the problem that we have with having a clear, concise and appropriate reaction to sexual violence against women,” Mahoney said. “It’s not just Charlottesville, but I think Charlottesville is sort of a crucible for this behavior simply because it’s a college town.”

To support her findings, Mahoney referred to a 2005 study conducted by Jacqueline Chevalier Minow and Christopher Einolf which indicated that a “substantial minority of U.Va. women undergraduates are victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault while enrolled at the University.”

According to the study, 17.6 percent of female University undergraduate students are raped during their four years at the University. 10.7 percent of rape victims in the study sample reported their rape to the police, 8.7 percent to medical personnel, 2.7 percent to a rape crisis center and none to University officials.

“I think that there’s a serious issue with the culture in and around Charlottesville when it comes to violence against women,” Mahoney said. “This is happening way too frequently and on too great a level for it to be a random event.”

Mahoney said both her own experiences and the Chevalier and Einolf study indicated the prevalence of several misconceptions surrounding sexual assault.

“The first … is this idea that somehow a molestation is casual, that it’s sort of not that big of a deal,” Mahoney said. “That is just not true. [Sexual assaults] are a deliberate attempt on the part of the offender to instill fear, humiliate and rob the victim of power by assaulting them in an intimately sexual manner.”

Mahoney said students might not understand the severity of sexual assault on the victim because many only consider particularly violent attacks, like rape, to be serious forms of sexual assault.

“People who commit these crimes are sort of like, ‘Well, I was drunk’ or ‘It’s not that big of a deal,” Mahoney said. “Since it’s not rape, [they think] it’s not that big of a deal – but it is.”

Misconceptions, misunderstandings and silences

Claire Kaplan, director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at the Women’s Center, explained that the type of skepticism Mahoney faced from her friends after her assault her first year stems from a tradition of doubt surrounding sexual violence.

“Historically, and currently, survivors of sexual violence are not believed,” Kaplan said. “Many people might say, in theory, that they support survivors, but once they hear about someone they know, the questions start – questions that are not applied to any other crime, and in fact have no relevance to the crime itself.”

For these reasons, Kaplan explained, many incidents of sexual violence go unreported, which in turn may allow a cycle of sexual violence to continue.

“The silence around sexual violence is a feedback loop,” Kaplan said. “Survivors don’t hear about anyone reporting, so they are under the impression that the climate is unwelcoming to victims who report. So they don’t report, and so on.”

In addition to an atmosphere of disbelief and silence, a lack of understanding of sexual assault maintains cultures of sexual violence, said Katherine Jetton, former internal chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council.

“It’s really easy for people to understand a definition, like the definition of rape, but it’s hard for people to define sexual violence for themselves,” Jetton said.

Jetton explained her work with SALC often aimed to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual violence on college campuses.

“It’s such a hard thing for people to talk about when people don’t get the resources they need, because they don’t know they’ve been sexually assaulted,” Jetton said. “People create so many boundaries for the definition of sexual assault – it can’t be with my boyfriend or girlfriend, or this friend. People don’t realize how common this is.”

More assaults, or more reporting?

Although Mahoney insisted her own experiences and research pointed toward an increasing frequency of assaults, officials from the University Police Department and Sexual and Domestic Violence Services offered an alternative view: The community has seen an increase in the number of attacks reported, but not necessarily an increase in the number of actual sexual assaults.

After her attack, Mahoney began searching through crime logs of the University and Charlottesville Police in an effort to determine whether the number of sexual assaults innCharlottesville has risen during the past few years. She concluded from her investigation that “the number of attacks last year reached the highest point this century.”

Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo said she’d seen more students reporting sexual assaults in recent years. But this increase may point to increased reporting of sexual assaults rather than a rise in actual attacks, Eramo suggested.

“It’s hard for me to say, because there’s a sense in the community that these issues are vastly underreported … I have seen more students coming to our office and reporting sexual assaults and stalking, and I hope that’s because of a concerted effort to raise the profile of our office and our resources in that area,” Eramo said.

Officials from the University Police department agreed.

“No, there has not been a rise,” said Angela Tabler, a victim advocate with the University Police. “Actually, the students have just been reporting more [sexual assaults], which we absolutely want. Part of maintaining a safe community involves reporting as quickly as possible.”

Tabler said sexual assaults derive from instances of opportunistic crime, which she doesn’t consider unique to the University.

“I don’t consider Charlottesville an assault-heavy area,” Tabler said. “The bottom line is that this is a college area and a lot of crimes are ones of opportunity.”

Forcible fondling

University Police Chief Michael Gibson sent a number of emails last year which included a term many University students hadn’t heard before: “forcible fondling.”

The term is an official one, Tabler explained.

“Forcible fondling is the name of the assault,” Tabler said. “If we were to charge someone, that’s the charge placed on them. Specifically, fondling implies unwanted touching.”

The name of the charge received snickers around Grounds.

“It’s a stupid term,” second-year College student Parker Reynolds said. “It’s humorous. When I first read it, I laughed.”

Mahoney said she encountered many people who understood the weight of the term; yet she said others brush off forcible fondling as not being a serious offense.

“Forcible fondling is not the best terminology; despite the inclusion of ‘forcible’ to indicate the unwelcome nature of these crimes, ‘fondling’ implies an act of affection and endearment,” Mahoney stated in her letter. “This is clearly the wrong connotation for these crimes, because it depreciates their traumatic, shocking, invasive, and terrifying reality.”

Some students said the language should more closely reflect the serious nature of the crime.

“I think it kind of became a pun, or funny, and it really shouldn’t be,” second-year College student Alison Kosmacki said.

University policy

The University recently revised its sexual misconduct policy to broaden the circumstances under which a student can raise sexual assault charges and also the definition of “sexual misconduct.” The policy revisions went into effect July 8.

University officials began reviewing the policy in December 2010.

“We did an extensive review of our definitions that focus on sexual assault in particular, so we broadened those to include sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and to include cyber stalking, unwanted recordings or postings of sexual acts on Facebook,” Eramo said. “We included things in the new policy that weren’t explicitly included in the old policy.”

This past April, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” Letter to all federally funded colleges and universities. The letter demanded that policy revisions comply with provisions under Title IX, an act prohibiting gender discrimination in K-12 schools and also universities.

Based on the recommendation of the letter, the University lowered the evidentiary standard for sexual assault cases, Eramo said. Previously, the standard required “clear and convincing evidence.”

The revisions altered the standard to one in which there is “a preponderance of evidence” that an incident of sexual misconduct occurred.

The letter discussed proactive efforts schools can take to prevent sexual violence, along with providing guidance on unique concerns which arise in sexual violence cases.

Additionally, the letter provided examples about key Title IX requirements and how they relate to sexual violence, such as the requirements to publish a policy against sexual discrimination, designate a Title IX coordinator and adopt and publish grievance procedures.

In a case like Mahoney’s during her first year, the letter provided strict guidelines for colleges and universities to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise to determine what occurred. The provisions of the letter obligated schools to take prompt and effective steps to end sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

Education and resources

Like Tabler, Kaplan said students should look at sexual violence as a national issue, not one specific to the University.

“The problem of sexual assault is serious everywhere. We know that nationally, one in six American women is a victim of sexual assault (that includes rape or attempted rape) in her lifetime, and that last year, and that a woman or girl is raped every two minutes in the U.S.,” Kaplan said. “I’m often asked if U.Va. is worse than other schools, and my response is always, sadly, no.”

To promote a united front against sexual violence on Grounds, the University sponsors different organizations to educate students, victims and witnesses of sexual assault. Some of these organizations fall under the Sexual Assault Leadership Council, an umbrella organization of sexual assault-related student groups at the University. SALC coordinates the efforts of these different groups, and helps organize Take Back the Night in the spring and Domestic Violence Awareness Week in the fall.

Tabler explained that both the University Police and the Women’s Center sponsor Rape, Aggression and Defense programs open to students and members of the greater Charlottesville community. In addition to RAD programs, the University offers resources for victims of sexual assault, such as the victim/witness program Tabler leads.

As coordinator of the program, Tabler accompanies victims and witnesses to court or to get restraining orders and explains the legal process to them.

“Additionally, we work closely with the dean of students after a student, faculty or staff member says they’re willing to see what resources are available to [victims],” Tabler said. “I’m there for them. I check on them, see if they need anything.”

Tabler explained that no information indicated that more assaults occurred in one segment or area of the community than in another.

“I wouldn’t pinpoint any area as a more heavy area, but we need to focus on education,” she said. “Focus on education and accountability, not placing blame on any area of the community.”

—Katherine Raichlen and Mike Lang contributed reporting to this article.


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