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Fighting Sexual Assault

Amid growing national momentum, UT-Austin takes steps to protect incoming students

By Jessica Luther, May 16, 2014, News

"One in five women is sexually assaulted in college."

This stark statistic is the opening sentence of the first report of the new White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, released April 29 at a press conference attended by Vice President Joe Biden and many sexual assault survivors and activists. The task force was created in January by President Barack Obama, in response to the increasing number of federal complaints filed with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice by students who charge that their universities and colleges have failed to prevent or effectively respond to sexual assaults against students. Obama has given the task force "a mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to help combat sexual assault on their campuses."

The report continues: "Most often, [she is assaulted] by someone she knows – and also most often, she does not report what happened. Many survivors are left feeling isolated, ashamed or to blame." According to a 2000 Bureau of Justice study, fewer than 5% of the rapes or attempted rapes were reported to law enforcement, but two-thirds of the victims did tell another person (usually a friend, not a family member or school official). On campuses, nine in 10 of the women knew their assailants, and roughly two-thirds of the rapes took place off-campus.

The dramatically low percentage of cases reported means that all of the statistics around sexual assault are at best uncertain, and often disputed. Most of what is known about college campus sexual assault is from anecdotes – single stories whose weight is often not felt except by accumulation. During the press conference about the new report's release, Vice President Biden told only one story, one he heard many years ago when Congress first started holding hearings about this issue:

"Her name was Christine. She went to a small college in southeastern Pennsylvania. And during the orientation period her freshman year, there was a big bonfire on a Fri­day night. And she was standing there with one of her girlfriend's boyfriends. Nice guy. When it was all over, she said, 'I'm going back to my dorm.' He said, 'I'll walk you back to your dorm.' And he said, 'But on the way, can we stop? I want to pick up my jacket.' And she walked into his dorm, he pulled her into the room, and he raped her."

As it happens, Biden's recollection has a current Austin echo. Before the summer of 2013, attempting to reduce the risk of incoming students being victimized while attending orientation, the University of Texas made changes to the program format. While there are no statistics specifically cataloging sexual assaults that occur during orientation (federal reporting currently mandates universities report only annual totals, and the University of Texas Police Department's reporting statistics are so low as to be nearly negligible), university administrators have long known that some of the factors that lead to assaults – like easy access to alcohol-infused fraternity parties just off campus – are present in the summertime, and that younger students are more vulnerable than upperclassmen. Many fraternities, since their parties are, to a great extent, member-recruitment events, purposefully plan them so that incoming freshmen can attend.

During and after the summer of 2013, as far as UT administrators know, there were no reports of sexual assault. It would seem to be a laudable story of success at a time when universities and the highest level of federal government are trying to find new and more effective ways to prevent and respond to sexual assault. Nevertheless, a central characteristic of these cases is the silence of victims; what can we know of what advocates at UT were able to achieve last summer? And what should the university do, going forward?

The Risk

On the morning of July 15, 2010, 18-year-old Sarah Ellis woke up in Round Rock in the bed of a strange man (Ellis' name has been changed to protect her privacy). The last thing she could remember from the night before was looking for her cell phone and purse at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house, located minutes from the University of Texas campus. Ellis was attending orientation, and had been invited to a Sig Ep house recruitment event. The fraternity provided party guests with a punch mixed with Everclear (190-proof clear grain alcohol). Ellis got very drunk, and at the point when she realized her judgment was impaired, she searched for her belongings. But before she found them, reads the petition she filed against the fraternity last year, "she sat down inside the fraternity house and lost consciousness entirely."

How Ellis ended up in Round Rock the next morning remains unknown. At some point, a man unaffiliated with the fraternity kidnapped her, drove her many miles from campus, and sexually assaulted her. According to Ellis' suit, the next morning she "was dumped by the sexual predator at the Austin location of a McDonald's restaurant ... miles away from the university, without a telephone, without any money, and without a substantial portion of her undergarments." Someone brought Ellis into their home and called the authorities. She was taken to a local hospital where "she received post-assault treatment."

Her cell phone and purse were found later that day, in the fraternity house.

In a May 2013 deposition, the assistant rush captain at the time of Ellis' kidnapping and assault said that the frequent fraternity parties that summer were about "trying to do some recruitment for the guys that were in town" for freshmen orientation. He adamantly denied, however, that the fraternity would directly invite young women who were visiting for orientation.

In her lawsuit, however, Ellis claimed that "the invitation of incoming freshman women to parties ... is an annual event during summer freshman orientation sessions" and that the high level of alcohol like the punch she drank that night is provided to create a "sexual opportunity for members of the chapter." Recently, the judge dismissed the case against the fraternity, since there was no evidence that a member of the fraternity "provided, sold, or served" her an alcoholic beverage or that the fraternity's "alleged provision of alcohol proximately caused her alleged kidnapping and sexual assault."

The Federal Context

In the Ellis case, the criminal justice system declined to acknowledge a connection between alcohol-fueled fraternity parties and the possibility of sexual assault, but the administrators of UT's orientation program did see one. Under Title IX (the federal law best known for requiring gender parity in sports), a university receiving federal assistance must ensure that every person who attends the school has equal access to educational opportunities. A campus with known sexual predators among the student body is an obstacle to that access; universities that do not adequately protect students from sexual assault or ignore reported assaults are, therefore, in danger of losing federal funding.

The most difficult aspect of Title IX has always been enforcement. Since the crime of sexual assault is rarely reported, how to measure if universities are doing enough? Victims of sexual assault are often afraid or ashamed to report the attack, or they fear they'll be blamed for the circumstances of the assault. When they do speak up, they are often not believed. As one consequence, only a fraction of rapists land behind bars. Nevertheless, the 1990 Clery Act (aka the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act) created standardized reporting requirements, requiring colleges to be more transparent about crimes taking place on their campuses; the law has been amended and broadened several times.

The latest amendment, enacted last year, is called the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, or Campus SaVE Act. In order to comply with Title IX, the Clery Act, and SaVE, universities must perform a list of actions that include collecting data on interpersonal violence, providing victims with information about their right to report, conducting prompt and fair investigations of reported assaults, and educating students on such subjects as how to intervene as bystanders and how to reduce their risk of being assaulted.

Voices – and Actions – Against Violence

It's a lengthy and complicated list of requirements. Jennifer Hammat, Assistant VP for Student Affairs and the Institutional Title IX Coordinator at UT-Austin, has a poster-sized chart on the wall behind her desk that captures the complexity of Title IX, Clery, and SaVE enforcement. "This is the checklist put together by the Association of Title IX coordinators. This one is maddening," she says, as she turns in her chair. "There are five levels: Title IX compliance officers, first responders, responsible employees, faculty/staff, and then students. The 'diamonds' are required by Clery and SaVE. The 'pluses' are implied or necessary elements based on resolution agreements and/or the recommendations by a professional association. The 'checkmarks' are required explicitly by Office of Civil Rights or the Department of Justice."

This hodgepodge of levels and symbols is intended to help administrators create a campus where assaults are stopped before they start, victims feel comfortable reporting, and reporting leads to investigations, consequences, and change. Hammat is currently transitioning to doing Title IX compliance full time; her goal is to have UT meeting the diamonds, pluses, and checkmarks on all five levels. Hammat acknowledges that Title IX is "absolutely a long distance race. And when the gun [initially] went off" – i.e., when Clery was enacted – university administrations "all went, 'Who's running?'"

Only now are many campuses beginning to join the race. UT is said to be among the leaders, partly because officials have been educating incoming freshmen about sexual assault for quite a while. Fourteen years ago, Jane Bost, associate director of Pre­ven­tion and Outreach Services at UT's Coun­sel­ing and Mental Health Center, applied for a grant under the Department of Justice Violence Against Women Act to address campus safety. With that funding, she established the Voices Against Violence program, to bring attention to the issue of interpersonal violence, promote consent and risk-reduction on campus, and to provide services to victims. A requirement of the grant, Bost says, was that "we had to reach freshmen." New Student Services, the office which traditionally runs orientation, committed to enabling VAV "to promote awareness [of] these issues at freshmen orientation." Bost says "that was a big change and that happened a long time ago." After multiple years during which VAV received a total of $1 million in federal VAWA grants, UT formally brought VAV into its budget and created institutional support for the program. By that point, Bost says, there was an expectation that education around sexual assault would be part of the orientation curriculum.

And yet, in 2010, Sarah Ellis was kidnapped and raped during orientation, a violent crime made possible by an unregulated, booze-filled fraternity party. While it may have been an isolated and extreme incident, and her assailant was not a student, it was the sort of crime that raises official alarms. Administrators continue to look for more certain ways to avoid exposing incoming students to risk, and also to offer them education on the dangers of sexual assaults.

Entering the summer of 2012, UT President Bill Powers decided to move orientation from New Student Services to the College of Liberal Arts. The shift was in part a result of the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates established the previous year, aimed at increasing the four-year graduation rate to 70%. Powers asked Marc Musick, Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, to take on orientation and incorporate the 70% goal. That first summer, Musick heard "lots of stories that were floating around" about students who had been sexually assaulted over the years while attending orientation, and alcohol often played a role in those incidents. In UT's Annual Security Report, the federally mandated report created by the university, "sex offenses" are only counted annually, with no differentiation for the timing of the incidents. There were 74 reported forcible sex offenses between 2010 and 2012 (23 on campus), but the data do not reflect if any of those occurred during the summer or specifically during orientation sessions. Musick was quick to note that "we didn't have numbers" – again, because of the difficulty of tracking and confirming sexual assaults.

After tackling the issue of graduation rates in their preparation for orientation curriculum in the summer of 2012, Musick told his colleagues that a primary goal at freshmen orientation for the summer of 2013 would be to improve the safety of students, specifically against sexual assaults; his plan was supported throughout the administration. He gathered together representatives of a wide range of offices – New Student Services, Voices Against Violence, Sorority and Fraternity Life, among others. They decided to make two changes.

First, all incoming students would now be required to stay on campus during orientation. (In previous years, as many a third would stay off campus.) Of the roughly 7,000 incoming freshmen who attended orientation last summer, no one complained about the new rule, and only one applied for an exemption. During each orientation session, students were divided into dormitory wings, with an orientation advisor assigned to each wing. While "wing meetings" have been a part of orientation in previous years, last summer a mandatory wing meeting was scheduled at 11pm each night. More­over, any student who missed an 11pm wing meeting would be prevented from registering until the end of the summer – losing the chance to schedule the choicest courses. "If you block them from registering when they leave orientation," Musick said, "it's a huge incentive to make sure you are at those wing meetings."

Of the 7,000 incoming students last summer, only 10 missed an 11pm mandatory meeting. Students did complain about these required late-night meetings, but Musick shrugs off that criticism, saying, "Student safety is more important to me." The intent of the two new rules was 1) to keep students from unregulated off-campus venues (e.g., nonsanctioned parties); and 2) to keep them on campus overnight. (From a 2007 National Institute of Justice study: Sexual assaults on students were most likely to occur between midnight and 6am.)

The new orientation curriculum also introduced a series of required videos, the impact of which is harder to measure. Hammat and Bost say the videos are an effective tool to reach thousands of students with a consistent message in a short period of time.

The people at Voices Against Violence helped create a video about bystander intervention – reflecting that a crime can be stopped if witnesses are willing to intervene. While many people imagine bystander intervention to happen only in the moments before an assault is about to occur, Bost says that it often actually works more indirectly. "It can be 'You know, that wasn't really a cool way to talk about your girlfriend or boyfriend,'" Bost says. It gives these young people both "a very positive message" and "a sense of empowerment."

Musick is proud of what he believes he and his colleagues accomplished last summer. "This was truly a team effort, a university effort, to make sure our students were kept safe." While Musick speaks freely about how his team could make incoming freshmen at orientation safer, he does not draw a direct line between sexual assault at orientation and the kind of fraternity party that Ellis had attended. Rather, he points to many possible off-campus locations. "Sixth Street, restaurants, everything else out there drawing our students away, the parties that are out there," Musick says. "It's not just one activity they're going to, they are going to lots of things." Since the university cannot shut those places and events down, "to keep students as safe as possible, we needed to keep them on campus."

A Comprehensive Approach

When student organizations (such as fraternities) violate university rules, UT can remove a student organization's status, denying it campus resources. But fraternity houses themselves are private property, and local chapters also answer to their national organizations, which can pull a chapter's charter, severely limiting its ability to meet or even stay in its house. These national organizations, Jennifer Hammat says, "are very aware that they need to do more when it comes to risk management."

When Musick and New Student Services made the changes to orientation that kept people on campus overnight, the fraternities were forced to alter their recruitment events in response. Elizabeth Medina, an assistant Dean of Students for Sorority and Fraternity Life, says her office was tasked with helping "sororities and fraternities who were interested in interacting with orientees ... to do that through the Student Organization Fair that is hosted during each orientation session." She says the sororities and fraternities responded well to that alternative, and it reduced the need for unregulated parties.

More generally, Medina says, the university works with fraternities and sororities throughout the year to teach members about the dangers of alcohol, the problems with hazing, how to manage and mitigate risk, and how to prevent sexual assault. Voices Against Violence also conducts year-round campaigns of its own. Jane Bost notes that the work VAV does with orientation "is one aspect, one piece of a very comprehensive approach."

In another program, VAV performs a production titled "Get Sexy. Get Consent." In these scenarios, audience members choose what the characters will do in interactions of sex and consent. VAV reports that "after attending a performance, 83% of students reported they would act differently in future sexual situations." VAV also has a student organization that helps educate students about topics like relationship violence, and one staff member teaches a course on the subject. VAV has become so vital to the work being done at UT to create a better, more fair, more Title IX-compliant environment, that Hammat said all universities need their own version of this program.

Prevention and Intervention

After last summer, with the major goal of altering the curriculum to reduce years-to-graduation rates, orientation has returned to Student Affairs from the College of Liberal Arts. But the 11pm wing meetings and the mandatory housing on campus will remain in place for 2014. There will be more learning opportunities about interpersonal violence, and a continued emphasis on bystander intervention. Bost says, "It's an evolving process. We tweak and try new things."

Compared to the federal level, UT seems ahead of the curve. Alongside the White House task force's new report and the creation of its new site NotAlone.gov, the task force released a 60-second public service video full of famous actors – Daniel Craig, Benicio del Toro, and others, as well as both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The video has two main messages: prevention ("If she doesn't consent, or if she can't consent, it's rape, it's assault") and intervention ("If I saw it happening, I'd speak up"). During the summer of 2013, UT showed every incoming student a video about bystander intervention. The script was written by Voices Against Violence, two male student leaders from student government introduced the video, and students acted out the script. The main messages of the video were "At UT, we take care of each other." and "I saw something, I did something." This messaging now begins at orientation, and is continued through the many services that Voices Against Vio­lence provides around campus.

UT has a robust and diverse group of tools, services, and people working to make the campus safer. When applied specifically to the finite and more easily regulated space of orientation, it appears that the administration's efforts are working – but Bost cautions against presuming too much from the zero-reporting of assaults last summer. "The fact that we had no reports may or may not really mean anything," Bost says. For her, the success of this new orientation program is that it gets "a very strong message across that we care about each other, we take care of each other."

Hammat also notes that sexual assault statistics and reporting are at best an "imperfect science." In this context, for example, no reports of assault could also be worrisome – the goal is to create a space where victims feel more comfortable coming forward. It's uncertain if the lack of anecdotal evidence about sexual assaults during orientation was caused by the changes in housing and time of meetings. Like Bost, Hammat considers the success of last summer to be the university's larger systemic changes in approach. "We put better training in place for all of our students to know that if they see something that isn't right, they should say something. If they aren't sure, they should ask. We've trained them on consent and what that looks like."

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