BOISE • It’s not a statistic that parents want to hear as their kids are packing off for school: One in five women will be sexually assaulted during college, and it’s most likely to happen during their freshman or sophomore years.
That statistic, cited by a White House task force in its call for university reforms last year, generated some controversy. Critics pointed out that it came from a small study (just two universities) and one that used a broad definition of sexual assault, including forced kissing or fondling.
But this past spring, a nationwide poll of 1,000 students who attended college during the past four years found that 20 percent of women had been sexually assaulted, the Washington Post reported. The poll also found that 5 percent of men had been assaulted.
Federal officials want universities to do better on all facets, from prevention to holding perpetrators accountable. The Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which took effect July 1, requires the schools to have prevention programs in place for students and employees, as well as clearly communicated protocols for handling sexual assault incidents.
The Department of Education is investigating the handling of 145 sexual violence cases at 128 colleges and universities.
Boise State has been sued by a former student who claims the university mishandled her report of ongoing sexual harassment by a fellow student who she said raped her. Boise State is not under investigation by federal officials, but two other Idaho universities are.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notified University of Idaho officials in April 2013 of a complaint filed in March 2013 alleging that the school did not adequately respond to a claim of sexual harassment and failed to provide a prompt and effective grievance procedure. Wednesday, a university spokeswoman said it wouldn’t comment on the pending investigation.
Idaho State University is also facing a pending investigation, according to a list of investigations updated July 29. ISU spokeswoman Adrienne King said state and federal law prohibit discussing specific cases. “We are cooperating fully with OCR in its investigation,” she said in a statement.
“ISU supports the government’s increased emphasis on preventing sexual misconduct on university and college campuses. We take all Title IX sexual misconduct complaints very seriously, thoroughly investigate them, and deliver a prompt and equitable resolution in accordance with the requirements of Title IX.”
Sexual Assault at Idaho Campuses
So how common is sexual assault at Idaho colleges and universities?
There were 30 sexual assaults reported at the state’s three largest public universities in 2011-2013, according to data compiled by the Office of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education. Those forcible sex offenses including rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object and fondling.
Experts caution that these numbers don’t reflect the true scope of the problem. That’s due to the limitations of the data and many victims’ reluctance to report the crime.
The numbers that universities are required to report include incidents that happen on campus, adjacent properties and university-controlled properties – but it doesn’t include what occurs in houses or apartments a couple of blocks from campus, where many students live.
“The actual effect (sexual assault) is going to be much larger than the numbers reflect. It allows people to downplay the problem,” said Annie Kerrick, an attorney hired by Boise State two years ago to be the Title IX coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students.
Kerrick’s job is to ensure the university complies with state and federal regulations prohibiting unlawful discrimination and harassment. She previously served six years as the staff attorney at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
An estimated 80 percent of all sexual assaults in the United States go unreported to law enforcement, according to 2013 reports on a study by the National Research Council.
The rate of sexual assault, including rape, among college students ages 18 to 24 is half the rate of non-students the same age — but college students are less likely to report these crimes, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a study released in December.
In the vast majority of college sexual assault cases, the victim knows the perpetrator: He’s a classmate, acquaintance, friend or boyfriend.
“Alcohol is the drug of choice to facilitate rape,” Kerrick said. “One party is often significantly more intoxicated than the other. … It might be one person sitting there in a group setting, watching for that person getting to that (high) level of intoxication.”
Universities that participate in federal student aid programs are required under the Clery Act to collect data on campus crime and make it available to the public.
Boise State’s campus crime log can be viewed online. Six years of information on reported crimes is available there, including date, location, police report numbers and whether the case has been resolved.
There’s one sexual assault listed on Boise State’s crime log so far this year. A third party reported a rape on May 9, but the victim was “not desirous of prosecution,” the log says. Police investigations into sexual assaults are public record, but the reports released are heavily redacted to protect the privacy over victims and alleged assailants.
Why So Underreported?
There are many reasons why college students who are victims of rape don’t report it to university officials or police, experts say.
“Our biggest problem sometimes is we look at rape victims, and we forget that their body is the crime scene,” said Jean Fisher, chief of the Ada County Prosecutor’s Special Crimes Unit. “It is their body. It is their soul.”
They blame themselves.
They don’t want to submit to evidence collection from their own bodies.
They’re afraid of reprisal from the perpetrator or friends.
They don’t want their parents to know.
They don’t want it in their medical records.
They don’t want to testify in court.
They just want to forget it ever happened.
And that’s not all.
One Boise State University student who was raped in 2011 told police that she didn’t initially report the crime because she thought she’d get in trouble for being a minor and drinking alcohol at the party where she was attacked, the police report said.
She told police she was at a party at a residence on Lincoln Avenue, when she was grabbed from behind, dragged to an upstairs bathroom and raped.
“She told (the assailant) numerous times ‘no,’ and upon completion of the sexual intercourse, (the assailant) told (the victim) to put on her clothes, count to 100 and not to tell anyone,” the police report says.
The man told her he would tell everyone she was a slut if she told anyone about what happened. She told police she decided to come forward after a friend urged her to report it. When detectives with Special Victims Unit tried to reach her for a followup interview, she did not return calls. “Can re-open case if victim contacts this agency and wishes to pursue charges,” the report concludes.
Another big reason why victims don’t come forward is shaming and victim blaming.
In Fourth District Court about a week ago, Judge Steven Hippler sharply questioned the attorneys representing Boise State in the former track student rape/sexual harassment case about why they had included the plaintiff’s sexual history – including names of her sexual partners – in its motion for summary judgment. The memorandum was part of the court file, which is public record.
“So, because someone has consensual sexual relationships … somehow they couldn’t have been the victim of a sexual assault?” said Hippler, indicating he believed the reason for including information about the student was designed “to embarrass, to humiliate and to intimidate” her. He directed the attorneys to resubmit the memorandum without the names, and said he would seal the original memo.
Kevin Satterlee, Boise State’s general counsel, told the Statesman Friday afternoon that university officials were appalled when they heard about the legal move by the state-hired attorneys. “That is so against anything we would do in defense of a case,” Satterlee said. “We’ll be sending them a message, telling them it was unacceptable and not representing us or our interests.”
The Ada County FACES Family Justice Center opened in 2006 to help make it easier for people to report and access services for domestic violence, sex crimes and child abuse. It’s a secure facility where evidence can be collected for rape kits and victims can meet with physicians, counselors, victim advocates, police, prosecutors and Legal Aid attorneys. The center served 1,300 people in 2014, Executive Director Rebecca Lovelace said.
Detectives with the Boise Police Special Victims Unit are based at the South 6th Street building, and so is Fisher, the prosecutor. The client meeting rooms offer softer furniture and a friendlier decor than you’d find at a hospital or police station.
“The challenge with rape — whether on college campuses or off — is having victims feel safe to report,” Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts said.
FACES doesn’t keep statistics specifically on college students who come in for a sexual assault exam. But it does keep numbers by age group. Last year, 40 women ages 18 to 23 came in for exams. There were 59 exams for that age group in the first six months, an increase that officials say could be the result of a growing awareness of services.
When a student discloses a sexual assault to Boise State officials, the university does not report the crime to police. That decision is left to the victim, though the university does encourage reporting.
Kerrick said an exception to that rule is if there’s concern about a current threat to general public safety.
In December of last year, the university sent an e-mail to students about a reported rape at Chaffee Hall. A description of the suspect was included, along with tips for staying safe.
In that case, a student reported that she was in a dorm bathroom at about 4:30 a.m. when an unknown man came in, pushed her into a shower stall and raped her, the police report says. Students have to swipe student ID cards to get into the locked bathrooms, but the door was propped open with tissue.
Police identified and interviewed the suspect, who was not a student at the university. He gave a very different account, saying the sexual contact was consensual.
In a followup interview, the victim said she was unable to remember parts of that night and it was possible that some of what the alleged assailant said was true.
“She said that all she remembers is saying ‘no,’” the police report says. “She said that she did not want to accuse someone of something if she led them on and she did not want to abuse the criminal justice system.”
The investigation was forwarded to the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, which did not bring charges because it did not believe the evidence was “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Proposed federal legislation would require universities to notify police about sexual assaults. Some victims’ advocates opposed that requirement because they fear that even fewer people will come forward.
Many universities have designated people for confidential reporting, allowing an assault survivor to get help without having to make a decision on notifying school authorities or the police. At Boise State, information shared by students at the Women’s Center is kept confidential. Also, university counseling and health services are confidential reporting sites.
“Confidentiality is so important,” said Adriane Bang, a licensed master social worker who is associated director of the Women’s Center. “There has to be a safe place for people to go.”
Students accused of sexual assault may be subject to parallel investigations – one by the university, the other by police, if police are notified.
Kerrick conducts investigations at Boise State. She interviews both parties separately (they are allowed to bring an attorney or other support person with them), gathers facts and talks to witnesses, provides them both with an investigation report and gives them an opportunity to respond before making a decision on whether there was violation of university policy. If there was a violation, she makes makes recommendations to the associate dean of students on appropriate sanctions.
Universities don’t have to wait for the outcome of criminal investigations by police to take action and impose penalties. Their decisions are based on “a preponderance of evidence,” a much lower standard than used in the criminal justice system.
School officials try to move quickly to ensure that assault victims feel safe on campus. They may alter living arrangements and/or class schedules, impose a school-based no-contact order and have the accused removed from campus and/or expelled, if found to have violated school policies.
If the suspect is not a student, the university can issue a notice of exclusion. So if he sets foot on campus, he could face a trespassing charge.
Some critics say universities have gone so far in trying to support victims that they’re ignoring the rights of the accused. Since 2011, more than 20 men who feel they treated unfairly after accusations of sexual assault have filed lawsuits, according to a 2014 article in the New Republic titled “Accused College Rapists Have Rights, Too.”