UVA consultant: College a model for sexual assault response

Brett Sokolow, who's advised the University of Virginia on sexual misconduct, says its policies are "state of the art"

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? 

Students marched along University Avenue by the University of Virginia on Saturday night, protesting how the university handled a reported gang rape.
Ryan M. Kelly / The Daily Progress / AP

UVA is in many ways a model, said Sokolow. It was one of the first two colleges in the country to hire full-time trained investigators for sexual assault cases and the only university he knows of that published a draft of its sexual misconduct policy for public comment. The university recently launched a bystander-intervention campaign. Alleged victims gush about the head of the university's sexual misconduct board. The boorish ditty "Rugby Road" was banned from football games four years ago.

UVA didn't, however, do anything about the alleged gang rapists roaming its campus.

Under Title IX, schools have to respond to rape reports in a prompt and fair way and take reasonable steps to protect students from rapists. But the tap at Phi Kappa Psi kept flowing and the boys can forever hang their UVA diplomas on their walls. 

That was Jackie's choice though. She didn't want to go after her alleged attackers.

"One of the challenges for any college campus is navigating an obligation to act on something once we have notice of it," said Sokolow, "but also trying to respect a victim's wishes when they don't want us to take action."

Here's a campus that's bending over backwards to empower victims in the process.

Brett Sokolow

Sexual misconduct consultant

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.  

The blistering Rolling Stone investigation into rape at UVA.

"I admit it's confusing," said Dunn. "That's the worst-written section in the entire thing."

But she believes the message is clear: When a case is severe enough, and presents enough of a threat to the community, a school has to do something about it.

"The UVA case clearly fell within that obligation," she said. "I don't think that's much of a question."

Dunn said if UVA wanted to protect Jackie's anonymity and prevent future Jackies at the same time, they had a range of tools to do so. School officials could have paid a visit to Phi Kappa Psi on any party night, for example, and busted them for serving alcohol to tons of underage girls.

"It's a tactic law enforcement uses all the time," she said. "Famous mobsters get taken down for tax fraud."

UVA didn't do anything like that. It never even mustered up a warning to the community about the alleged crime. But Sokolow said there's a reason for that. As far as he knows, at least at the start, Jackie wouldn't tell officials the names of the men or the fraternity, so an email would have scared people without doing much good.

"It kind of sounds like this to students," he said. "'There's a penis on the loose, maybe even several of them, and if you go out to a party and you drink, one of them may get you.'"

It appears as if details of the men and the fraternity did come out later on, such as in May of this year, when the student shared two other allegations of gang rape at the same house. 

'There's a penis on the loose, maybe even several of them, and if you go out to a party and you drink, one of them may get you.'

Brett Sokolow

sexual misconduct consultant

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." 

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