Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Campus sexual assault responders need better training, advocates say

Capitol Hill discussion concludes interviewers of sexual assault victims should be more sensitive to trauma

Law enforcement officers and campus administrators need better training in how to interview and assist students who report sexual assaults on college campuses.

That was the takeaway on Monday from the final installment of three roundtable discussions on Capitol Hill about how to address the problem of campus sexual assaults.

“We are having way too many interviews of sexual assault victims by someone who does not know how to do a forensic interview,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, in her opening remarks as host to the group of college administrators, advocates and campus and county police officers who convened to talk about colleges’ adjudication processes for handling sexual assaults.

When the interviewer directly — or even tacitly — blames victims for what they were wearing or doing at the time of the assault, or is otherwise insensitive to the trauma of sexual assault, it has a huge impact on how the case plays out and whether more students feel safe enough to come forward in the future, said McCaskill.

“In a perfect world, I’d have a person on campus to talk to sexual assault victims when they’re ready to talk who has been trained in forensic interview techniques,” she said.

In response to ever-louder complaints from students across the country that colleges have mishandled their sexual assault cases, a White House task force released a report in April addressing campus sex crimes. It called on colleges to administer to students anonymous “climate” surveys on sexual assault to determine each school's shortcomings. The task force also launched a new, centralized website, NotAlone.gov, detailing students’ federal complaints against at least 55 colleges under the Title IX and Clery Acts, data the Department of Education hadn’t previously released.

McCaskill, along with two other Democrats, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, will draft legislation based on the roundtable discussions following the summer Congressional break.

But law enforcement and local police are another element in addressing campus sexual assault. A major problem, law enforcement officials said at the Monday discussion, concerns overlapping jurisdictions. For example, a sexual assault might take place in an off-campus apartment or fraternity, out of the direct purview of a university.

They also discussed the delicate balance of needing to interview a rape survivor right away to get the proper evidence necessary for prosecution, but also being sensitive that he or she may be traumatized and prefer to seek punishment through campus disciplinary channels, or not at all.

“We must understand it is never the victim’s responsibility for the offender’s arrest,” or to pressure the victim that it’s up to him or her to keep the perpetrator from re-offending, said Detective Carrie Hull from the Ashland County Police Department in Ashland, Oregon, home to Southern Oregon University.

Her county’s police department has created a victim-centered approach to sexual assaults, called “You Have Options,” after consulting with several sexual assault advocacy groups. The program allows the victim to talk about his or her options with a police officer before deciding whether to prosecute the alleged assailant. Police interviews can be recorded if the victim chooses, so there’s no confusion down the line if anyone doubts the story.

As a result of the program, reporting of sexual assaults in Ashland rose 106 percent from 2010 to 2013, Hull said, which spurred murmurs of approval from the crowd in Washington. She added that dozens of college campuses have reached out to her department to ask what they can do better.

But the struggle for colleges, administrators said, is to make sure that they also comply with laws such as the Clery Act, which requires schools to issue to students a “timely warning” after any repeated criminal activity. Some rape victims may not want the rest of campus to hear about their assaults, even if reported without identifying details.

For example, Paul Denton, police chief at the Ohio State University, said he’d heard on campus that his department should issue a warning after every campus rape in order to comply with the Clery Act, and wanted guidance from the Department of Education about the best approach. “Maybe we are over-legislating,” he said.

Alexandra Brodsky, a student at Yale Law School and co-founder of the advocacy group Know Your IX, which aims to inform students about their rights under Title IX, said it’s important for schools to be prepared to help rape survivors with a variety of needs and goals. “Some people want public vindication through the courts,” she said. “Some people just want an extension on their English paper, or to not have to see their rapist in their dorm the following day.”

California's official audit

Also on Tuesday, California State Auditor Elaine Howle released an official audit of the sexual assault policies of four public universities (PDF) in the state following complaints filed by students that their cases were handled poorly.

The report concluded that the universities — which include U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Chico State and San Diego State University — “do not ensure that all faculty and staff are sufficiently trained on responding to and reporting student incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

The report said that the schools also need to do a better job of educating the student population about sexual violence — 22 percent of more than 200 students surveyed by the state auditor said they weren’t aware of on-campus resources on sexual assault.

And 35 percent of those same students surveyed reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment from another student or member of a campus community — but in 87 percent of those incidents, the students did not file a complaint.

The state auditor recommended that California should require by law that incoming students must be provided with education about sexual harassment and violence when they arrive.

Universities, it said, also ought to give students a written explanation about what to expect from the process of filing a sexual violence complaint, and should give students regular updates on the status of investigations that result from those complaints.

Sofie Karasek, a rising senior at U.C. Berkeley who spearheaded the filing of federal complaints against the university for how it mishandled her and other students’ sexual assault and harassment cases, said she was pleased with many of the audit’s conclusions, because they validated the reasons why her group filed the complaints in the first place.

“For instance, the auditors acknowledged the problematic lack of communication between investigators and survivors, the inadequacy of anti-sexual violence training and the discouragement of survivors from reporting,” she said in an email.

“I also thought it was great that the auditors specifically pointed out how the U.C. policy needs to change from allowing survivors only to request a formal investigation to guaranteeing them the right to a formal investigation,” she continued.

A qualm she had with the report, however, was the auditor’s finding that disciplinary sanctions schools give to assailants are “adequate.”

“In my experience at Berkeley, I have never spoken with a survivor who believes her assailant received the appropriate sanction, so I’m curious as to how the auditors define ‘appropriate’ and I hope that they can make this information more transparent,” Karasek said.

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