The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Someone you know — sexual assault at the University

Steubenville trial prompts national discussions about rape culture, resonates with University students

The national press surged on Steubenville, Ohio in March, as two high school football players — aged 16 and 17 — were convicted of raping a 16-year-old classmate while she was too intoxicated to give consent. The nationwide conversations about rape culture, prevention and policy that the trial prompted remain particularly relevant on college campuses across the country.

In October of last year, for instance, a University student anonymously posted a letter on Facebook relating the story of her sexual assault by a “Mr. Y” after an on-Grounds club meeting. That letter sparked an outcry on social media, reminding the University community of a controversial 2007 website cataloguing the University’s alleged failures to prosecute sexual assaults on Grounds.

And that victim is not alone — a Wilder Research Report in 2007 found that sexual assault is the most common form of violent crime committed on college campuses, and female college students are more likely to be raped than their peers who are not enrolled in college.

Almost a quarter of all college women will become victims of attempted sexual assaults before they graduate, according to a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in 2000. The majority of these crimes are committed by a familiar acquaintance and go unreported to authorities, the study found.

Policy Progress
In April 2011 the Department of Education sent a letter to the chief administrators of national universities, reiterating universities’ legal obligations to enforce procedures regarding sexual misconduct. The letter reminded schools of their responsibility to take proactive measures to combat instances of sexual assault in accordance with Title IX’s policies on harassment. It also reiterated the requirements of the Clery Act, which mandates that schools participating in federal financial aid programs disclose information regarding crimes committed on or around campuses to the school communities.

The letter also informed schools that Title IX requires cases of sexual violence to be adjudicated based on the presence of a “preponderance” of evidence, rather than “clear and convincing” evidence. Under the preponderance standard, the accused is found guilty if the majority of evidence suggests that the accused committed the crime, while the clear and convincing policy has a stricter standard for determining guilt.

At the time the letter was sent, the University still used the clear and convincing standard when evaluating cases brought to its Sexual Misconduct Board. A month later, however, the University announced the adoption of the preponderance policy as part of a six-month review of its sexual misconduct procedures. University President Teresa Sullivan signed the updated sexual misconduct policies in July 2011.

Despite these changes, however, Department of Education officials placed the University under review for its sexual violence policies — part of which included sending an email to students and faculty in October 2012 to elicit responses about experiences with sexual violence at the University.

On our doorstep
In October 2012, the anonymous “Mr. Y” letter was posted on Massachusetts attorney Wendy Murphy’s Facebook page on behalf of her client, a female University student.

Her post detailed her story of waking up one morning, unsure of where she was, and realizing she had been sexually assaulted. She then recounts her trial experience with the Sexual Misconduct Board, and the pain she felt upon her perpetrator receiving a not-guilty verdict. “My own school, that I loved so much, failed to protect me,” she wrote. “I had never felt so betrayed and let down in my life.”

University officials responded to the post, saying it included “misleading and inaccurate information,” but that confidentiality requirements prohibited administrators from speaking more specifically about the trial.

The anonymous Facebook post also highlighted a handful of examples of sexual assault cases at the University.

Former student Liz Securro published a memoir in January 2011 about her rape experience in the 1980s at a fraternity party at the University. In her book, she condemns University officials for their dismissive response when she tried to file a case against her rapist.

Most recently, University Police Chief Michael Gibson informed students in an email in January of a “forcible fondling” incident involving a female University student when she was walking by Wilson Hall at 8:30 on a Monday evening.

In total, there were 14 instances of reported forcible sexual assaults in 2011 — the most recent year for which Clery Act information is available. Of those, eight occurred on Grounds including six in residential facilities.

A question of tone
Third-year College student Evan Behrle, president of the on-Grounds sexual assault education group One in Four, said the Sexual Misconduct Board has the difficult task of being as thorough as possible in investigating cases without discouraging victims from engaging with the process.

Behrle and other student leaders have been working collectively to change the culture surrounding sexual assault on Grounds to better inform students about the reality of sexual assault, help victims through the process and prevent further assaults.

Both One in Four and the Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy group have worked with Gibson’s office to tweak the tone used in his emails alerting students of crimes committed on Grounds. Gibson’s emails too frequently put the burden on women to avoid being raped or assaulted, said fourth-year College student Amelia Nemitz, president of Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy.

“As a group focused on the issue of sexual violence, [Sexual Assault Peer Advocacy members] place a good deal of emphasis on the importance of the language used to talk about the issue,” Nemitz said.

University Police Lt. Sally Fielding said the department is working with student groups to change the phrasing of its emails, but the requirements of the Clery Act mandate they present prevention strategies when it sends students emails — which it does anytime an offence is committed in nearby areas and the threat is still ongoing.

University alerts, Behrle said, are also insufficient, as they downplay the threat of acquaintance rape.

“I think a bigger problem is that the Clery Act, the way it is interpreted at U.Va., is that they will only send out an email when there is a clear and present danger to the community,” Behrle said. “Often that manifests itself with a stranger assault or a stranger rape, where the person hasn’t been arrested.”

The National Institute for Justice reported in 2008 that in 85-90 percent of sexual assaults the victim knows the attacker. The study also said fewer than 5 percent of victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault report the incident.

Behrle suggested the University emails — in conjunction with the Clery Act requirements — do not present an accurate picture of the sexual assault reality at the University.

“U.Va. itself could send a semester, or annual email, where they say how many assaults were reported to the police, and how many to the sexual misconduct board, and include in that email that reporting rates are low,” Behrle said. “[This would help] to keep it on people’s mind and give people a better understanding of what type of sexual assault is prevalent.”


Latest Podcast

Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.