A balancing act: Students, UO officials disagree about policies for reporting cases of sexual violence

Posted by Josephine Woolington on Monday, Nov. 5 at 7:19 am.

 This is the first part of an ongoing series looking into the University of Oregon’s Title IX sex discrimination policies. In this story, Jane’s name was changed upon request.

Jane thought she had been clear with her boyfriend: no sex. The two dated for several weeks after meeting in the University of Oregon dorms their freshman year in 2008. But one night after a party, Jane’s boyfriend persuaded her to sleep in his dorm room.

That night, he raped her.

After that night, Jane struggled in school. She became reclusive and attempted suicide. She was embarrassed to tell her friends and family about the rape.

So she didn’t talk about it.

“He ruined my life in so many ways,” Jane said. “I would have absolutely no remorse for him if he had to go through some kind of a process to prove he was a perpetrator.”

Jane, now 22, represents a large group of women who are sexually assaulted during college but do not report the crimes. She was confused and intimidated by the reporting process. Although she wishes her perpetrator could have been punished, she didn’t want to report the rape. Four years later, she still isn’t ready to talk about it with authorities.

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five women are survivors of rape or attempted rape during college. Yet, only 36 percent of rapes and 34 percent of attempted rapes in the United States were reported to police between 1992 and 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To increase reporting at college campuses, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights outlined in April 2011 ways schools and universities can minimize sexual violence. The agency suggested revamping decades-old laws that require universities to adequately train employees for their role as mandatory reporters. Universities must also inform students about the reporting process.

UO administrators quickly realized they weren’t doing enough to make sure cases like Jane’s were reported.

“All of the OUS (Oregon University System) schools are struggling with these issues,” said Sheryl Eyster, UO associate dean of students.

Administrators and law enforcement officials believe mandatory reporting will increase the number of perpetrators held accountable. Sexual violence survivors like Jane, however, think the policies disempower women who aren’t ready to report the crime.

To combat the large number of sexual violence cases that go unreported, the UO formed a work group last summer with about a dozen members. The group, including members from the Office of the Dean of Students, University Health Center, Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity and the UO Police Department, wrote a 12-page draft detailing the reporting process.

The draft is the first time the UO has outlined all of its reporting policies to students and UO employees. It is still not published, which is mandated by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“It’s almost completed,” said Paul Shang, assistant vice president and dean of students who serves on the work group. “In fact, I would say it is completed. It has been forwarded to make it into our procedures.”

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in all school activities that receive federal funding. Sex discrimination includes sexual violence, which Title IX defines as any form of unwanted sexual touch, including rape, sexual assault, harassment and stalking. All UO employees are required under Title IX and Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) to report any case of sexual violence they are aware of. If a student who was sexually assaulted goes to a mandatory reporter, such as a professor, the professor must report the incident to the Office of the Dean of Students. The Dean of Students then reports to the Title IX coordinator to begin investigating.

Shang said it took the administration more than a year to finalize the draft because he said writing it was a comprehensive process. It brought together all UO policies for sexual violence cases, he said, including mandatory reporting.

UO senior and women’s rights advocate Kerry Snodgrass didn’t know about mandatory reporting until August 2011 when the administration began training resident assistants in University Housing to become mandatory reporters. She thinks most of UO’s 4,500 employees — including professors, administrators, graduate teaching fellows, tutors and student employees — likely didn’t know about the mandatory reporting policies either.

Snodgrass thinks the policies force survivors into an investigation they might not be ready to enter.

“It’s a policy that’s so negative for survivors in the long run,” she said.

She was especially concerned when the UO temporarily suspended anonymous report forms last summer. Before, those who knew of a case of sexual assault were not required to put their name on the report form. For the last year, students and UO employees haven’t had that option.

Shang said the work group has a new anonymous report form draft. The group initially suspended the forms because the reports were written in a way that exposed identifying information, obligating the UO to follow up with that person, he said.

In response to the administration’s suspension of anonymous report forms, Snodgrass helped form a group in fall 2011 called the Survivor Empowerment Alliance. SEA has anywhere from 10 to 25 members and meets weekly, she said. Last year, the group collected 2,500 petition signatures supporting anonymous report forms.

The group’s goal this year is to bring back anonymous report forms as well as inform students and UO employees about the mandatory reporting process, she said.

UO senior Alex Sylvester is a member of both SEA and the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team. He compared mandatory reporting to Oregon’s child abuse law that requires all K-12 employees to report any case of child abuse they are aware of.

“It sort of says to me that you cannot take care of yourself and you are like a child,” he said. “(UO administrators) need to work on a model that is more empowering to survivors at every step of the process.”

Although Sylvester and members of SEA say sexual violence survivors are forced to go through a legal process, Shelly Kerr, a member of the work group and director of the Counseling and Testing Center, said survivors may choose whether or not they want to be involved in the process.

If survivors want to be anonymous, they can talk to a counselor or any medical professional at the University Health Center and the Counseling and Testing Center. Counselors and medical professionals are legally unable — in most cases — to release a student’s name, she said. A counselor must report to the Office of the Dean of Students what survivors tell them only if the survivor is a minor or if the survivor’s life is in danger. Students can also go to off-campus confidential support centers such as Sexual Assault Support Services or Womenspace.

Shang said part of the problem is that members of SEA do not have a clear understanding of Title IX’s mandatory reporting requirement.

“I don’t understand, frankly, why it’s seen as a women’s rights issue,” Shang said. “These are terrible crimes, and I think that the spirit behind Title IX is that people ought to be punished, and public institutions are obligated to make sure that their institutions are accessible to all people.”

Numbers from the 2010 National College Health Assessment (PDF) show that about 20.6 percent of surveyed UO women experienced sexual violence that year. But only 37 sex offenses (both on and off-campus) were reported to UO Police Department since 2009.

Pete Deshpande, UO Police Department captain, said having mandatory reporting without anonymous report forms greatly increases the likelihood of catching the perpetrator. Deshpande, who served as a patrol officer for the Eugene Police Department for nearly 30 years, said part of the problem is that so many sexual violence cases go unreported.

“For us as an agency to really get involved, we need to have the information,” he said. “And often it doesn’t get to us and, of course, we can’t do anything.”

Still, the laws and policies could be seen as unclear and unfair to students like Sylvester and Snodgrass, who believe the UO could do more.

“I think the University has a way to create policies and infrastructure to support survivors of sexual assault,” Snodgrass said, “without treating them like children and giving them this sense that they can’t make these choices themselves.”