Virginia Tech says it’s committed to changing culture to prevent sexual assault

In the wake of last year’s partially discredited Rolling Stone story that alleged a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech officials say they remain dedicated to making their campus safer, despite complicated regulations and social and cultural barriers that make confronting sexual assault difficult.

“My biggest concern … is that people think it’s a quick fix,” Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok said. “I don’t think this is a quick fix. What is a quick fix are our systems.

“We can fix systems of accountability, and I think that will make a difference,” he said. “But the biggest difference is going to come when we change our minds about what it means to relate with other human beings.”

Since 2012, Tech’s student affairs division has investigated student-on-student sexual misconduct complaints covered by Title IX of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on sex. Shushok is the deputy Title IX coordinator at Tech, and he oversees a staff of trained investigators who look into the student-involved cases.

Sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, stalking — these may not be the typical incidents that come to mind when thinking of sex discrimination. But “anytime you limit a student’s ability to participate in your educational program or activity and you do it on the basis of their sex or gender, that’s a form of sex discrimination,” said Pamela White, Tech’s Title IX coordinator.

Sexual assault can affect a victim’s ability to do their coursework, particularly in cases where a perpetrator lives in the same dormitory or attends the same classes, barring their access to equal opportunities. In such cases, federal law requires that the university provide resources and accommodations to remedy the disadvantage, White said.

Those remedies can be providing access to health and counseling services or an advocate through Tech’s Women’s Center. The 20-year-old center has long served as the advocate and safe space for victims of sexual assault. Its staff of five full-time and two part-time staff advocate within and without the university for victims’ needs and rights. The staff also oversees dozens of trained student peer educators, who work with other students on ways bystanders can identify and combat interpersonal violence on and off campus.

Those bystander programs are “one of the more effective ways to connect with students,” said Christine Dennis Smith, co-director of the center.

Discrimination remedies for sexual assault victims can also include allowing students more time to complete coursework or to switch classes or housing arrangements, White said.

Since the student affairs division took over student-on-student civil rights complaints two years ago, Shushok’s office has investigated 108 allegations of sexual misconduct — many of them originally reported by third parties and mandatory reporters. In 30 instances, investigators found enough evidence and victim cooperation to refer cases to the university’s Office of Student Conduct for a hearing, according to figures released by the university.

According to Shushok, all the victims were given information about how to press criminal charges. But, “in the vast majority of student-on-student sexual misconduct matters, the victims do not want to work with the police, and they do not want to work with the criminal justice system,” he said.

In 19 out of 30 cases brought to student conduct, a student was found responsible under university policies for some form of sexual misconduct. Punishments ranged from dismissal and the withholding of a degree to suspension. Some form of suspension was the most common punishment.

The university does not compile data for employee- and third party-involved Title IX sexual misconduct reports, or their disposition, university spokesman Larry Hincker wrote in an email. Neither state sunshine laws, nor federal regulations require universities to track and report data on the cases. The Women’s Center provides support and advocacy for 150 to 175 students, faculty and staff annually on matters “ranging from relationship issues, to stalking, to sexual assault, to relationship violence,” according to Dennis Smith.

Meanwhile, over the past three years, the Tech police department received 36 complaints of sexual assault as classified by the federal Clery Act — including harassment and stalking. A number of those also came from mandatory reporters. Out of those cases, seven victims decided to bring criminal charges and defendants were prosecuted, Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust said.

Campus police respect victim’s wishes when they decline to press charges because, Foust said, it’s a very personal and difficult decision. In cases where a sexual assault report poses a wider danger to the community, police and university officials may pursue investigations despite victim reluctance. But that is rare, Shushok said.

Victim reluctance to bring charges, even when encouraged to do so, is a stark fact that casts some doubt on the efficacy of proposals to institute state mandatory reporting requirements for colleges and universities. One such proposal currently being considered by the Virginia General Assembly would require all reports of sexual assault be forwarded to the local commonwealth’s attorney within 48 hours. But it’s unclear how that would result in more victim cooperation with police, at least at Tech.

Tech sexual assault cases are prosecuted by the Montgomery County commonwealth’s attorney’s office, headed by Mary Pettitt. If mandatory reporting was passed in the legislature, it “would not cause any hardship for the prosecution and might help,” Pettitt wrote in an email. “It might also instill more confidence in the public that allegations are being taken seriously by separating the college’s perceived interest in minimizing negative publicity with the victim’s and accused’s rights to a thorough investigation.”

But, she added, “I don’t think it will have any effect on the overall number of sexual assaults, as I don’t see it as a deterrent to the perpetrator.”

Pettitt further wrote that she is fortunate to work with a campus police force that is well trained and nationally accredited, and she feels “confident in their ability to appropriately and thoroughly investigate any claims of sexual assault. I also understand that not all colleges have campus police that are fully certified law enforcement. … The law might help facilitate the thorough investigation of allegations in those jurisdictions.”

Federal mandatory reporting rules already apply to public colleges and universities like Tech. Under both Title IX and the Clery Act nearly all faculty and staff, and every student worker are designated mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct. Any allegation that comes to an employee or a student worker must be reported to campus police under the Clery Act, or to a Title IX officer. Sometimes, it’s reported under both systems, causing double counting.

The classification of reported incidents can cause some confusion. The Clery Act includes harassment and stalking in its definition of sexual assault, and requires those incidents be reported alongside rape and attempted rape in the annual statistics compiled by Tech police. And Clery Act statistics can be confusing for another reason: Reports that result in criminal charges are lumped in with reports that never go to court, according to Foust.

Perhaps the highest hurdle to cross in quantifying the campus sexual assault problem is the degree of underreporting of sex crimes in general. After decades of research, experts estimate that between 64 percent and 96 percent of rapes are never reported to police. It’s a social problem that touches every sector of society, including college campuses.

“Studies of unreported rape, mainly on college campuses, indicate that from 6 [percent] to 14.9 [percent] of men report acts that meet legal definitions for rape or attempted rape,” according to a study published in 2002 by researchers David Lisak and Paul Miller.

Lisak and Miller are both clinical psychologists and researchers who study interpersonal violence and the impacts of sexual abuse.

While conducting the 2002 study, Lisak was affiliated with the University of Massachusetts and Miller was based at Rhode Island’s Brown University School of Medicine.

Miller has been a contributing editor to the scholarly journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.

In their study, Lisak and Miller used standard diagnostic questionnaires for violent behavior to confidentially survey four sets of men enrolled at a midsized urban commuter university. The surveys were conducted intermittently over seven years with participants that ranged in age from 18 to 71. The findings were startling.

Out of 1,882 men surveyed, 120 described engaging in behaviors that met the legal definition of rape or attempted rape. The majority of those that described engaging in rape or attempted rape reported doing so repeatedly. According to the study, 76 men admitted to engaging in a total of 439 incidents that met the legal standard of a sex crime.

In the vast majority of incidents, the men reported targeting women who were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Force or threat of force was also used routinely, according to the study. According to Lisak, alcohol is a factor in many sexual assaults, but it is not the cause. In fact, Lisak argues, the men who engage in predatory sexual behavior report using alcohol to further their ends.

Lisak and Miller also identified a number of other violent behaviors among the 120 men, including assault and battery, child abuse and domestic violence.

“I know it’s disturbing to think of these as college students,” Lisak told a group at Emory University recently. “But it’s backed up by 50 years of research.”

“If a rape is reported,” Lisak said, “you’ve been put on notice.”

Tech officials who deal with sexual assault complaints have noticed this trend, too, but also see an area where they think they can make a difference.

“Lots of our young men are doing the right thing, making the right choices and holding the right values, and we really need to celebrate that,” Shushok said. “There are also those that fall in the category of engaging in a pattern of behavior, and they have repeat victims.”

“I also think there is a third part,” Shushok said. “Students who have unfortunately grown up in circles that think ‘this is what you do in college’: You go out, you engage with alcohol and you hunt for the opportunity to engage in some kind of sexual behavior. And it becomes blurry about when it is OK, and when it’s not.”

“That’s where the greatest opportunity for cultural change exists,” Shushok said. “Because it’s all predicated on an idea of what you’re supposed to do and what college is supposed to be.” And college campuses, he said, are the perfect places to challenge those assumptions.