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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Campus sexual assaults still rife

Hearings, follow-up handled clumsily, leave bitter taste

Adam Shipman is director of advocacy and education for the Sexual Assault and Family Trauma Response Center in Spokane.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
Carol Smith And Lee Van Der Voo InvestigateWest

First of two parts

Disturbingly little has changed when it comes to sexual assaults on college campuses. People still blame the victims. Victims still blame themselves. While there are more groups on campuses devoted to helping assault victims, they still help only a fraction of those who actually experience assaults.

One in five will experience rape or attempted rape in their four-year college term, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“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, Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities.

Many 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. Those activities, combined with lack of understanding about definitions of consent, makes them vulnerable to nonconsensual sex, he said. “It’s more common than we like to think.”

‘It was complete re-victimization’

Lila Hobbs was a 20-year-old sophomore in 2007 when she reported having been sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Gonzaga University.

Stunned, and feeling overwhelmed, Hobbs kept silent for a month. Finally, she sought counseling and decided to pursue justice through the school’s internal judiciary committee.

“Basically, the questions they were asking were very inappropriate,” said Hobbs. “For example they asked ‘Why wouldn’t you just hit him?’ ” she said. “It was complete re-victimization.”

Her alleged attacker was sitting a few feet away, behind a white sheet, she said.

“There was no privacy, or safety.”

In an e-mailed statement to InvestigateWest, Assistant Dean of Student Life Jeff Hart said: “Relevant questions are allowed going to perception, truth and veracity. As you might imagine these can be emotionally charged proceedings and the person being asked a question may have a particular perception of that question.”

Hobbs also felt she wasn’t given adequate time to prepare for a hearing, and her request that other students not be on the hearing board was ignored, she said.

Sima Thorpe, assistant dean of students at Gonzaga, said the university encourages students to come forward if they feel they have experienced an assault. Without commenting on the specific experience of any one student, she said in general that she recognizes and can appreciate the frustrations inherent in the hearing process.

“If you are a victim, what’s justice for you? Are you going to get justice through a school hearing?” she said. “When you’ve gone through a dehumanizing experience, a hearing process is not going to make you feel whole again.”

Like Hobbs, Stephanie S., who asked that her last name not be used, reported a sexual assault, this one in a dorm room in 2001 at the hands of a University of Washington athlete she had casually dated. Like Hobbs, Stephanie also kept quiet at first.

After confiding to a coach about six months later, she sought recourse through the school.

Although their cases happened on different campuses, the outcomes were similar: Both women say the schools’ handling of their cases compounded their trauma.

Both point to insensitive handling that ranged from inappropriate questioning to, in Stephanie’s case, being required to go through mediation and sitting next to the man she’d accused. Discipline for the alleged perpetrators was light or nonexistent.

The experience left both of them angered that students who suffer sexual assaults by other students are often left to bear the emotional, physical and financial consequences, while those responsible for their anguish walk away.

“Many schools are not equipped to handle these complaints,” said Janet Chung, staff attorney for Legal Voice, a nonprofit organization that does legal advocacy for women.

There’s a lot of victim blaming in the hearing process itself, she said. “They ask, ‘Why didn’t you kick him? Push him?’ ”

If someone is robbed at an ATM, we don’t ask why they were there or why it was late at night, said Kelly O’Connell, executive director of the nonprofit Sexual Violence Law Center in Seattle. There’s a double standard for sexual assault.

Trinka Porrata, president of Arizona-based Project GHB, is a former cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, who now consults for both police and college campuses about drugs and rape. She has sat through many hearings where it was clear that the hearing officials were confused about the boundaries between consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity.

It doesn’t matter whether someone has voluntarily consumed alcohol, she said. “The issue with consent is, are you able to give or withhold consent? We forget that.”

Culture of denial

Emily Lorenzen, now 22, was a freshman and member of a University of California at Berkeley athletic club when she was raped by an upperclassman. During a weekend trip, he and other members of the club hazed her into drinking too much alcohol, and then pressured her to undress.

Her father – Henry Lorenzen, a former president of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education – thinks it’s fortunate his daughter doesn’t remember what happened next. The following morning she woke in a bed next to the man she previously rejected. She was naked except for her bra. And her vagina hurt.

It would be four months before she told her parents what happened. It would be four months before she could admit it, even to herself.

Part of the ongoing issue with this crime is the frequent delay in reporting, and part of that is the lack of training for students to recognize and be aware of the crime. The shock that overtook Lorenzen, for example, is typical in rape cases, and such delays complicate investigations of the crimes.

In addition, young men, in particular, are ill-informed about what constitutes consensual sex. They are steeped in a “Girls Gone Wild” and “spring break” culture that glorifies the drunken sexual bacchanal.

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.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent to reporting, however, is self-blame. “They think that if they went out to a party, and were drinking, they were somehow to blame for what happened,” said Shipman, of the Spokane sexual assault center. “They need to understand they are the victim of a crime.”

A greater injustice

After Lorenzen told her family about the rape, they all thought the worst of the ordeal was behind them. They now believe that the injustice Lorenzen suffered when she reported the rape to a campus safety officer at Berkeley was greater than the actual rape. The officer told her that she should not have been drinking, and then launched a cursory investigation by sending letters to members of the club, asking each one to come to his office for an interview.

They got their stories straight, Lorenzen said. “I just wanted something to happen. … Either the guy getting punished or Berkeley having to change its ways.”

But no consequence came. Berkeley officials declined to comment on Lorenzen’s case, citing student privacy laws.

Janet Gilmore, a spokeswoman for the university, said Berkeley has a trained team of professionals that reviews sexual assault cases and is “always looking at ways to strengthen and improve the experience for students that report to us.”

The absence of justice was difficult for Lorenzen’s father, a lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney. He felt Berkeley offered only empty process to his daughter.

So Henry Lorenzen’s last order of business on the Oregon higher education board was to create a subcommittee to retool the Oregon University System’s policies. He appointed himself to the subcommittee and now is its chairman.

The subcommittee created an enforceable definition of the crime, retooled to fit better with life on campus than the Oregon criminal code, which lessens penalties for sex crimes that don’t involve male penetration. For example, stalking a victim is not OK by state law or on campus in Oregon, but the campus definition goes further and includes hanging out in places where the perpetrator knows the victim is likely to be as within the definition of stalking.

New solutions

Universities are beginning to tackle the issue of sexual assault in a number of ways, including surveying students to get a better handle on numbers, and increasing their emphasis on prevention.

In particular, a growing number of schools have begun addressing the underlying cultural issues through training and “bystander involvement” campaigns.

Washington, for example, is among the first to implement a program called “Green Dot” at campuses across the state, said Melissa Tumas, director of the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Information Center at the University of Washington. The Green Dot campaign, modeled on one started in Kentucky, is a way to promote positive behavior that stops sexual violence from occurring. In addition to mounting training programs to raise awareness, schools post maps with red dots marking spots where there have been reports of assaults, and green dots marking spots where someone intervened to prevent a potentially dangerous situation.

“It’s a shift in the way of thinking,” said Barbara Maxwell, associate dean of students at Whitman College, one of the first schools to launch the program.

“It tries to be as gender-neutral as possible,” she said. “A lot of programs used to make male students feel defensive, like we were pointing the finger at them. This program pulls in anybody to be a proactive bystander.”

Whitman College and Central Washington University were the first to launch campaigns in this state. EWU, UW and Pacific Lutheran University are also nearing launch, and Gonzaga and the University of Puget Sound are interested as well, said Maxwell, who is also co-chairwoman of the Washington Sexual Violence Prevention College Coalition.

Bystander campaigns can be effective because they don’t necessarily require confrontational behavior, said Shipman of the Spokane sexual assault center.

For example, a person who observes a guy hitting on a woman who has had too much to drink can “intervene” by telling the guy his truck is being towed – something to disrupt the moment, as opposed to confronting him, said Shipman.

Attitude adjustment

To really reduce the incidence of campus sexual assault, however, will take an attitude adjustment.

There needs to be a cultural shift to be more supportive of victims, Shipman said. “Rather than asking her what she was doing, what she was wearing and why she was out late at night, we should be asking why we have a culture where so many sexual assaults still occur.”

Schools need a better process for students who pursue their attackers through school disciplinary hearings, advocates say.

The Washington Sexual Violence Prevention College Coalition got together because they wanted to focus on prevention first, said co-chairwoman Maxwell. But she added the group will likely look at developing “best practices” guidelines for school hearings in the future.

Rebecca Roe, a Seattle-based attorney who has represented a number of campus sexual assault victims, said the most effective thing a school can do is dedicate and train a team to handle all sexual assault allegations brought by students.

“In a perfect system you’d have sexual assault allegations all handled by a specific organization on campus,” she said. “And everybody’s case should be required to go to that particular group so all cases are considered and processed by competent people in a consistent way.”