June 22, 2010

Campus sexual assault: Does ‘honor code’ system squelch justice at Oregon school?

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Three young women tell similar stories of being discouraged from calling police after reporting sexual assault to Reed College authorities, and of a campus investigatory process so intensely secretive one student was unsure she could even talk to her parents about it. The students’ allegations were not vetted by trained investigators or faculty, but by a student board without expertise in sexual assault.

Former Reed administrator Lisa Moore, a licensed social worker, confirms she took one of the students to the health center when she came to her crying and saying she had been raped by a former boyfriend in January of 2009, but did not know the student was later turned away without an appointment. Moore has since left Reed and now works at Boston University, in part because of her inability to change the Reed system. None of the recommendations of a sexual assault task force she assembled has been implemented, she said.

Two outside experts in how colleges handle sexual assaults criticized the system used by 1,400-student Reed, a highly secretive process based on a student Honor Code and enforced by a student Judicial Board, in which students act as a fact-finding committee and participants are barred from discussing their cases with anyone except a designated advocate, a procedural aide and medical professionals.

 In Oregon, there is a move toward reforms in how public colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault brought by students, but change has been slow and private schools are not bound by the new requirements. After the daughter of the then-president of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, Henry Lorenzen, brought a claim of rape against a fellow student at the University of California at Berkeley, Lorenzen became active on the issue and is now chair of the board’s subcommittee on sexual assault. In addition to strengthening state schools’ definition of sexual assault, the Oregon subcommittee is looking at tougher discipline for students who commit sexual assault, and widening school jurisdictions to handle assaults that take place off campus.

But victims’ advocates say little has changed on most campuses in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, and few victims get the help they need. They point to statistics, reported by the U.S. Department of Justice in a 2000 report, that show one in five college women will experience rape or attempted rape in their four-year college term.

A recent, year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., illustrates some of the issues. The Center interviewed 50 experts familiar with the campus disciplinary process,  examined 10 years of complaints filed against institutions with the U.S. Education Department under Title IX and the Clery Act.as well as 33 female students who have reported being sexually assaulted by other students. The investigation found that students found “responsbile” for alleged sexual assault onc ollege campuses often face little or no consequence for their acts, while their victims’ lives are frequently left in turmoil. Victims report a lack of institutional support, and even disciplinary action. Often, victims leave school, while the alleged attackers graduate, the Center’s investigation found.

 What we see happening at the university level is kind of a microcosm of what we encounter in larger society, which is that it makes everybody uncomfortable to talk about nonconsensual sexual contact, about sexual assault,” said Jessica Mindlin is the National Director of Training and Technical Assistance for the Victim Rights Law Center(VRLC), a non-profit organization with an office in Portland that is dedicated to transforming the nation’s legal response to sexual assault. “So what we find is that they would rather characterize it as a ‘misunderstanding.’”

“I don’t think general attitudes about sexual assault have changed in the 30 years I’ve been doing it,” said Rebecca Roe, Seattle-based attorney who specializes in sexual assault cases. “It’s very, very depressing.”

“College-age women are at very high risk for sexual violence,” said Adam Shipman, director of education and advocacy for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane, which sees students from Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, and Gonzaga University.

Many students are away from home and in dating relationships for the first time. They are experimenting with new, sometimes risky behavior, such as drinking and drugs, as they test their independence. That activity, combined with lack of understanding about definitions of consent, makes them vulnerable to non-consensual sex, he said. “It’s more common than we like to think.” 

Getting drunk and having sex are pretty standard plot fare in movies aimed at young men, said Shipman. “It’s a standard way young men are socialized.” Alcohol is a factor in at least half of date rapes, said experts who handle sexual assault cases.

Many college-age men simply don’t understand that if they have sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent, they are committing a rape. And many college-age women may not understand they have a right to report it, or they’re afraid.

A review of 10 sexual assault incidents at Reed heard by the Judicial Board since 2004 shows sanctions recommended by the board and approved by college President Colin Diver have varied in severity, but all have been minor compared to court sanctions had the cases gone through the judicial system and the perpetrators been convicted of sexual assault charges.

In a 2006 case, the Judicial Board recommended community service, a three-term suspension, a psychological assessment and a ban on drugs and alcohol for a student who was found  to have sexually assaulted three women, noting that a stiffer penalty such as expulsion would “eliminate the possibility for behavioral change,” according to the Judicial Board summary.

Shipman has worked in sexual violence prevention for 20 years. He blasted the decision to allow a three-time perpetrator re-entry into the college.

“That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexual assault is. That guy needed to go to jail,” Shipman said.

He said Reed is failing to take sexual assault seriously and that the college’s policies are “counter to what we are supposed to be doing in 2010.”

“An all-student fact-finding committee and no investigation of rape on campus by faculty or campus security is a serious concern,” said Shipman. “Sexual assault isn't a he-said/she-said issue. It's a crime. They are treating it like something that can be resolved by a committee.”

Looking back on the decision to allow the three-time sexual assailant to return to campus, however, Diver, the college president, said, “It might have been that under the sexual assault theories that are now in vogue, this should have been an expulsion.” Diver, who emphasized that he, not the student board, has final say on disciplinary matters, said the victims were on track to graduate before the assailant returned to campus.

Last year, the Judicial Board delayed hearing a case alleging a violent sexual assault by a student who was allegedly dangerous and in possession of a weapon because of  “time constraints.”

Diver approved the delay. He emphasized that college officials immediately searched the dorm room of the student charged with possessing a weapon and found none. He also said the complainant in that case agreed to a delay of the hearing. The case was eventually heard by a faculty/studentboard thatcould hear cases in lieu of the all-student Judicial Boardduring a semester break.  The board found that an assault occurred, and recommended penalties that were then increased by Diver to a one-semester suspension, a no-contact order and counseling. Diver said a one-semester suspension is not a minor penalty for sexual assault because it stays on a student’s record.

“I do think they are learning,” he said. “How can I be sure of that? It’s very difficult. None of them have been recidivist. So at least I can say that.”

 At 66, Diver said he lacks perspective on normal conduct for students raised in a culture where sex, porn, drugs and alcohol are readily available.

He said he appreciates the student Judicial Board’s ability to put complicated cases in perspective. And, almost all of the cases reported since 2004 have involved students who knew each other, were in situations of potential intimacy and had been drinking, Diver said.

“They really have resolved very difficult and factually complicated disputes, almost always in favor of the complaining women,” said Diver of the board. He said he reviews all transcripts and works hard to keep discipline by the Judicial Board uniform.

However, Steve Thompson, Sexual Aggression Services Director at Central Michigan University, said an effective program should not put student victims in hearings at all.

At Central Michigan, where Thompson built the university’s sexual assault response program into a national model for addressing campus assault, faculty are steeped in education about sexual assault, work closely with police and prosecutors and effectively enforce discipline according to a victim’s wishes.

 “Men who assault people they know, their profile is called ‘the nice guy.’ It is a planned act. Alcohol and drugs are their tools. They know they are going to assault someone and they know who it’s going to be. There is no gray area,” he said.

Oregon State University also is known for its aggressive investigation into sexual assaults and a student conduct process that aims to empower survivors and guard against further trauma.

Scott Etherton, OSU’s associate director of Student Conduct and Residential Education, , said student conduct officers team up with the Oregon State Police for sexual assault investigations, sometimes looping in local police. Because OSU has a regular police presence due to an on-campus nuclear facility, how the university investigates sex crimes is very much modeled on a law enforcement approach.

There are no student-only conduct boards at OSU. Victims and perpetrators don’t sit at the same table to present a case to a board. Likewise, students who report sexual assault aren’t thrust into proceedings against their will.

Instead, victims are matched with trauma counselors and medical attention before making formal reports to the student conduct division. They are given information about campus and criminal justice system options before they choose to report. If they report, victims of crimes other than forcible rape can opt for an informal process in which an administrator doles out less-severe sanctions to offenders than in more formal conduct hearings.

Change began coming to Oregon’s state system after Lorenzen experienced what he saw as the lackluster investigation, the lack of sympathy, the lack of resources, and the disbelief with which Berkeley officials greeted his daughter when she brought her allegation of being raped on campus club outing four years ago.

A campus safety officer told her that she not have been drinking, and then launched a cursory investigation by sending letters to the club members, asking them to come to his office for an interview.

Following pressure from the Lorenzen family, Berkeley sanctioned the club, but the student Lorenzen accused of raping her was not disciplined, nor were students who she said concealed the truth. Berkeley officials declined to comment on Lorenzen’s case, citing student privacy laws.

Janet Gilmore, a spokesperson for the university, said Berkeley has a trained team of professionals that reviews sexual assault cases and provides support services to victims. She added that Berkeley is “always looking at ways to strengthen and improve the experience for students that report to us” and would review the Oregon University System’s new policies.

Lorenzen, a lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney, says he knows the difference between a quality process and a legal defense. He felt Berkeley offered only empty process to his daughter.

 “They wanted to protect the university more than have a process that worked well both for the victim and the accused,” he said.

In the total Reed College caseload of seven reports involving 10 victims since 2004, the Judicial Board found five male students responsible for sexual assaults. Two other male students were found responsible for violations other than rape or assault. The perpetrators’ penalties ranged from community service, therapy and workshops to temporary suspensions. Only one student was expelled.

Reed reported another five sexual assault cases to the federal government under requirements of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges to report sexual assault cases, but those cases were never heard by the Judicial Board, either because the complaints were handled by a mediator before they ever got to the board or because no penalties were sought by the victims. Diver said he had no knowledge of the outcomes in those cases.

Mike Brody, Dean of Student Services at Reed College,defended the Reed process, saying the student board is trained to handle on-campus incidents of misconduct and is a good fit to provide confidentiality to students in sensitive sexual assault cases. Diver said the students get training at a weekend retreat that includes material on sexual assault.

One student’s story

When she first considered this college on the southern fringe of Portland, the 18-year-old freshman with a full-ride Bill and Melinda Gates Foundaton scholarship, thought of Reed as utopia.

That Reed College steeps its students in an atmosphere of academic rigor was also attractive to the young woman, who – like many Reedies – values learning above most things. She was also drawn to Reed’s Honor Principle, which dates back nearly a century to when students voted to govern themselves by their own sense of right and wrong. The Honor Principle has since set a high bar on integrity for Reedies, who today abide by it by following written policies that spell out standards of good character, called the Code of Conduct. Reedies loosely refer to the code as the Honor Code, and it has a prominent place in campus life, where students readily and hotly debate issues of honor and integrity.

So when an upperclassmen employed by the school administration reached out to her when she visited as a high school student, she thought his advances were honorable. After she started school, he helped her find her way around campus, took her to Portland’s restaurants, invited her to parties and also introduced her to other students Within weeks, her new boyfriend became possessive and controlling. He began constantly pressuring her for sex, and continued sexual contact with her even when it caused her to cry.

One night after she had firmly told him that she could not see him anymore, he started kissing her.

“I was so outraged. I was so furious because I had just broken up with him,” said the student, who asked not to be identified..

But the kissing didn’t stop.

“I didn’t say anything. At that point I knew exactly what was going to happen and I put myself somewhere else... I didn’t blink. I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything…All I could think is, ‘When is this over?’”

Her reaction is typical, Thompson said. His research shows most women don’t resist assault, but are overcome by fear, helplessnes, disbelief and shock. He calls this “first phase trauma.”

What happened next is something all three women interviewed for this story say is typical at Reed College: officials failed to connect her with the police or trauma services.

The student went to Moore, former Dean of Multicultural Affairs, crying and still unshowered the day after the assault.  “She said if you go to the police it’s very likely nothing will happen, so she strongly discouraged me.”

Moore said she was trying to explain all of the options and didn’t mean to discourage the student. She said she would think hard about her communication and where she might have gone wrong.

After their conversation, Moore said she walked the student tothe Reed College Health and Counseling Services so that she could talk confidentially with a counselor before choosing to report. But once at Health and Counseling Services, a second official told the student to leave, saying there were no counseling appointments that day. She went home and took a shower, then waited for her mother to come and get her.

“I never would have taken a student to a counseling center crying if I knew they weren’t going to be seen right away for something so urgent,” said Moore, who said she was not told that the student had been sent home.

Diver said the student should have told counseling officials that she needed help “urgently” and that her case was “an emergency.”

Shipman, however, said it’s up to Reed College to create an atmosphere where a student in crisis can truly be helped.

“If he is not willing to take the responsibility and the faculty is not willing to take the responsibility, somebody on that campus needs to put together a committee who knows something about sexual assault,” said Shipman.

Moore had already done that, however. A licensed social worker with previous experience counseling sexual assault victims, Moore established a sexual assault task force at Reed College comprised of students and faculty with interest and expertise in the issue. She said the task force worked hard to try to make the college processes more sensitive to sexual assault, and described the processes as otherwise “insane” to navigate. So far, however, none of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented.

 Moore has since left Reed College and now teaches at Boston University. She said her decision to leave Reed stemmed partly from her frustration with being unable to affect change there.

Do secrecy rules go too far?

Though brief summaries of Judicial Board cases are printed in the Reed College student newspaper after the cases are concluded, the process itself is shrouded in secrecy.

The victims interviewed for this story all said that they were intensely pressured to keep quiet about their cases, called Honor Cases, with related documents stamped “confidential” and constant reminders about confidentiality rules. Articles in the student newspaper about the Judicial Board process – even those summarizing case outcomes – include reminders about confidentiality.

The Reed students interviewed for this story and Moore, the former administrator, said they face possible sanctions up to expulsion for discussing the details of a Judicial Board proceeding, even after it has concluded.

 The students said the Honor Code  rules effectively cut them off from talking to the faculty members and close friends they normally would have relied on for support after being sexually assaulted.

Brody said that’s not the intent. Students can talk in general terms about being sexually assaulted at Reed College if they want to, he said, just not about who assaulted them. The rules are supposed to protect victims’ privacy, as well as the privacy of the accused, he said.

Bruno, the attorney for the Victim Rights Law Center, said Reed College officials should examine whether the rules go too far.

 “I think in a lot of circumstances you could read that confidentiality agreement as a quid pro quo, and if that’s how it’s intended, then it’s illegal,” she said.

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