Do They Ever Learn?

July 28, 2008

Just three years after a high-profile sexual assault case involving an athlete, the University of Iowa is in the middle of another such controversy.

The mother of a student who says she was sexually assaulted in fall 2007 by two members of the university’s varsity football team recently released a letter to the press expressing what she views as the university’s mistreatment of these serious accusations. With numerous allegations of university neglect from the victim’s family and an ongoing investigation by the state’s Board of Regents, the current situation reminds some of the furor surrounding former basketball standout Pierre Pierce. After being convicted of assaulting his then-girlfriend, the Iowa player was dismissed from the team and subsequently jailed in 2005.

Now, the attention garnered by this most recent incident involving football players Cedric Everson and Abe Satterfield – who have since left the university, been formally charged with sexual assault and await trial – has caused some to revisit the policies colleges and universities have in place to deal with accusations and support victims of sexual assault. The letter from the mother of the alleged victim, a female athlete at the university, states that the university did nothing about harassment from friends of the accused, and that senior university officials encouraged her to deal with allegations informally, without the police. The alleged victim, according to charges against the two players, was sexually assaulted the early morning of Oct. 14, 2007 while unconscious after an evening of drinking.

Campus crime experts and observers of the Iowa incident say the situation there points to issues that have the potential to turn up at many campuses.

“Anyone at an institution responding to a sexual assault complaint should be prepared to deal with one,” said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of non-profit organization Security on Campus, who regularly discusses issues of safety with college administrators and finds sometimes institutions are unprepared to respond to all complaints. “It’s important that when victims [report incidents] that they feel they have the full support of their institution. If they are provided with a lack of information or feel like, in the course of action, they don’t have support, it’s usually once they’ve realized it’s happened.”

An institution’s required response to an accusation of sexual harassment and assault, Carter said, is clearly outlined in a 2001 revision of the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal statue banning sexual discrimination in education. The law, however, is better known for requiring gender equality in college athletics. When an institution knows or is made aware of an incident of sexual harassment, according to Title IX, it is required to take “immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred and take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end any harassment, eliminate a hostile environment if one has been created, and prevent harassment from occurring again.”

Carter said he thinks there is significant ignorance about what Title IX requires of colleges and universities, adding that “a lot of them are in the dark” about some of its required procedures. Sometimes confusion and potential conflict with Title IX arises when it is unclear to the victim how he or she should file a complaint. This happens, for example, when there is a lack of coordination among university police, housing officials and a student judiciary body.

“Schools need to have a truly collaborative response,” Carter said, adding that disparate segments of university administrations must share information and data to handle cases appropriately. “One office, by and large, is not going to be equipped to handle cases of sexual assault. We need to teach them to work together. This is essential. We’re stronger together than we are on our own.”

In the event of a sexual assault, the revision of Title IX states an institution must inform the student of the “informal” and “formal” actions that may be taken. Additionally, the revision notes that a college is not mandated to institute a procedure for "informal" complaints – those reported to a subset or department of the college and not the college in and of itself – but that it must address these complaints in some way. A Security on Campus guide to the revision further states that an institution must immediately investigate any complaints whether or not a victim wishes for the institution to do so. The guide adds that it is “good practice for colleges to periodically inform the harassed student about the investigation.” Further, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, previously known as the “Campus Security Act,” stipulates that an institution must remove a victim from either living or academic situations that may put them in harm's way, if this is reasonably possible to do.

Concerning the allegations of sexual harassment at the University of Iowa, the alleged victim’s mother made statements in a letter to the press that bring into question the nature of the university’s response and whether they meet these standards. While the alleged victim, according to the letter, was informed of both the formal and informal responses that could be taken, the letter also states that little information was given about the process.

“We asked over and over and over and over and over and over – what is the process?” the victim’s mother writes about the university’s response. “What can we expect? Who is protecting the victim after she told her story to so many people that first week? Where are these boys in all of this? NO ANSWERS” [writer’s emphasis].

Additionally, the letter goes on to state that nothing was done about the alleged victim's situation for three weeks following the incident, noting that she lived in university housing near one of the accused and was continually harassed by his friends.

“They mocked her, called her names, laughed at her and had been left free to do whatever they chose after she had told her story for a week to various University Officials with absolutely no help forthcoming,” the victim’s mother writes. [Vice President for Student Services Phillip Jones] "asked the victim point blank, ‘How can I know you will be safe if I allow you to go in and out of [your dorm]?' Her reply was simply that she had trusted that someone would come to her at some point with a solution, help, hope, a sense that what she had reported was taken seriously.”

When institutions fail to respond to these types of allegations in ways that strike victims and their supporters as appropriate, the fallout can be significant and expensive. In December, six years after a group of University of Colorado at Boulder football players and recruits allegedly raped two female students at an off-campus party, and three months after a federal appeals court ordered the university to stand trial on charges that its officials had failed to do enough to prevent the alleged assault, Colorado agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle the former students’ lawsuit.

Women’s groups at the University of Iowa are cautiously responding to these recent allegations and using them as an opportunity to look at institutional policy. Monique DiCarlo, director of the university’s Women’s Resource and Action Center, said that, while she was not prepared to comment on some of the details of the case, she was committed to reviewing university policy and assist those who feel let down by its protocols. She added that the perception -- perpetrated by the victim’s letter and the press -- that the university wished to keep the process internal, whether or not this was the intention, was “chilling.” The recent allegations, she said, have reinforced her perception that the university’s system of dealing with similar cases should be investigated more closely, especially in light of the other past high-profile allegations involving Pierce.

“There is concern among faculty, staff and students that it’s unfortunate it takes this kind of high-profile incident for concern to be raised,” DiCarlo said of the responses her office has recently received. “I don’t want to suggest that our campus hasn’t done this work and looked at how we are educating our students. We have been engaged in that work."

Despite the work of women’s resource offices like those of DiCarlo’s at Iowa, there persists a problem of sexual violence on college campuses around the country. Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment for the National Women’s Law Center, said the reasons for its persistence are manifold, ranging from a deficiency of trained personnel on campuses to sometimes even the lack of an institutional understanding of what actually constitutes “harassment.” Colleges and universities are under legal obligation to put into place preventative policies to ensure their spaces are free of harassment, Samuels said, alluding to laws such as Title IX and its revisions. They are also under a legal obligation to have some sort of process for dealing with allegations of harassment, "formal" or "informal."

Some institutions, however, are encouraged to either ignore these required policies or handle them inadequately, according to Samuels. Two Supreme Court cases – Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed., No. 97-843 and Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., No. 96-1866 – recognize that sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination, as defined by Title IX, but Samuels said the standards they set in order for a victim to receive compensation for a case are extremely stringent. Samuels explains that these cases ensure that institutions cannot be liable for damages in harassment cases unless a victim can show that the institution involved had “notice of discrimination or was deliberately indifferent to it.” This, she added, is extremely hard for most student victims to materialize in the courtroom and often frees colleges and universities from liability in these cases. There are many more protections in place, legally, for employees in the workplace, including faculty and staff at universities in cases of harassment, Samuels said.

“These Supreme Court decisions send the wrong message to what schools should have in place,” Samuels said, adding that there is legislation pending to overturn these decisions. “The deeply unfortunate result of this is that some schools do not take the steps necessary to get harassment under control. There are incentives for some schools to keep from the knowledge of harassment.”

Responding to the catalyst of the discussion regarding sexual harassment on campus, the outstanding allegations at the University of Iowa, there have been few public statements from the administration concerning the incident. In university President Sally Mason’s most recent statement, she offered some thoughts to the victim and her family.

“I offer my heartfelt sympathy to the young woman and her family for the stress, the trauma, and the sense of abandonment that they have expressed,” Mason states. “From my observations of this situation throughout, I can say, honestly and sincerely, that many people tried very, very hard to help and be helpful. Good intentions, and even good actions, cannot, however, make up for what has happened."

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