Reeling from a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape on its campus, the University of Virginia has suspended fraternities, launched investigations and made a very public mea culpa to all the victims its disserved. But what is UVA apologizing for? What exactly did it do wrong?
According to Brett Sokolow, who's trained UVA's sexual misconduct board for the past seven or eight years, the university handled the incident appropriately. As the president and CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, he's helped develop the industry standard on how colleges should grapple with sexual violence. And while all universities can do better, he said, UVA's polices are "state of the art."
The student at the heart of the current scandal, who was allegedly gang raped two years ago at a fraternity party, didn't want to file criminal charges or a formal complaint with the school. UVA respected that. UVA has a victim driven system, Sokolow said, and they weren't going to drag the woman, referred to as Jackie in the explosive article, through an investigation and disciplinary hearing against her will.
So, what the heck was the right thing for UVA to do?
At UVA, of the 38 students who reported a sexual assault to Dean Nicole Eramo, the head of the sexual misconduct board, only four chose to pursue a formal complaint. In those other 34 cases, it's hard to nail the guy without the cooperation of the alleged victim. So the school now has the problem of alleged rapists running loose. And six in 10 college rapists rape again.
"Title IX has already contemplated this exact circumstance," said Laura Dunn of the advocacy group SurvJustice. "Schools have continuously misunderstood this section."
In 2011, the Department of Education offered detailed guidance on colleges' responsibilities under the Title IX equality law when it comes to sexual violence. It states that if the student doesn't want to pursue a complaint "the school should take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint consistent with the… request not to pursue an investigation." It adds a school should weigh a request for confidentiality against its responsibility to protect other students.
Based on his unofficial conversations with UVA administrators over the last week, Sokolow doesn't believe this was callousness or a cover-up (although he would have personally advised a campus notice at that point).
"They were essentially courting Jackie, communicating with her and the other victims, so that they'd give them the green light [to formally file a complaint]," he said. "…It was a building of trust process over time."
When the Rolling Stone article came out, that process had already taken more than a year and a half. Dunn, for one, is skeptical about UVA's supposed victim-first approach, which results in the overwhelming majority of victims opting not to pursue formal complaints.
"When victims talk to an advocate, who says, 'I will fight that fight for you,' they normally say yes," she said. "Victims will use systems when they feel the system will work for them."
But Eramo, the dean who counseled all these students, is beloved by self-identified victims on UVA's campus. In the past few days, the student newspaper has published scores of letters in support of her. Jackie wrote in that Eramo had "saved my life."
"We hear a lot about how campuses mistreat victims," said Sokolow. "Here's a campus that's bending over backwards to empower victims in the process."
The outrage has been less about any specific UVA policy than the grisly fact of rape itself: a culture where girls accept sexual assault as the price of admission to the party scene, are dissuaded even by friends from reporting, and if they betray their gentleman hosts, are punished with a bottle to the face, like Jackie was.
But much of that is a societal problem, said Sokolow, not just a UVA problem.
"I don't know how colleges can stop rape from happening at age 18, given all the abusive messages students receive before they get there," he said. "I'm a 'do more' person, there's a lot more colleges can do, but [sexual assaults] will still happen."