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No crackdown on assaults at colleges

Area schools reported 240 attacks, 4 ousters

By Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino
New England Center For Investigative Reporting / February 25, 2010

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Officials at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this week acknowledged that they allowed a student who confessed to raping a friend on campus last fall, a felony, to remain enrolled and avoid significant discipline.

The decision to give the student a deferred suspension was an error that has led to a change in the flagship university’s disciplinary procedures, according to Jean Kim, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life.

The case is symbolic of what victims and the advocates and lawyers who represent them in the college disciplinary process contend is a widespread failure of schools to issue tough sanctions against perpetrators.

Newly obtained Justice Department data show that reports of sexual assaults on college campuses rarely lead to serious sanctions. Ten New England universities and colleges provided the data as part of a campus grant program overseen by the Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women.

Of the more than 240 alleged assaults the schools reported between 2003 and 2008, four led to expulsions. The grant recipients in Massachusetts included Salem State College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern, Tufts, and UMass Amherst.

The schools were required to report assault cases in years they received money from the grant, which is designed to strengthen services for female victims of violent crime on campus, including making them more comfortable in reporting rape, developing strategies to prevent the assaults, and effectively using the campus disciplinary process to hold offenders accountable. Massachusetts schools received grants in at most two of the five years.

The Justice Department grant program encourages schools to train campus disciplinary boards to respond effectively to assault charges, including using “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion of students’’ who have perpetrated sexual assault.

Schools are not specifically required to tell local police about sexual assaults reported on campus; that decision is left to the victims. Most states require citizens to report felonies, but most college administrators will not unless the victim wants them to, according to Brett Sokolow, a lawyer with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

Schools that do not hold perpetrators accountable anger advocates. “It’s a rape; it’s a forcible contact without someone’s consent,’’ said Colby Bruno, an attorney with the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.

“It’s punishable by up to 20 years in prison, so why is it acceptable on college campuses?’’

In the UMass case, school officials said Tuesday that a review of their records indicated that the school’s response to the October rape was not appropriate.

The victim, a 2009 graduate who had returned to campus in October to reconnect with friends, said she was stunned to learn in January that her perpetrator had not been more severely punished.

The victim, who did not want to press criminal charges, had filed a complaint with the school in November. The accused student waived his right to a hearing and reported to assistant dean Christina Willenbrock.

Willenbrock gave him the deferred suspension, which puts students on notice that they will be suspended if they violate the university’s rules of conduct again. He was allowed to continue living on campus and to attend classes.

“It never even crossed my mind that he would blatantly get away with rape,’’ said the victim who requested her name be withheld to protect her anonymity. “I was told that he could lose his housing on campus, get suspended or even expelled.’’

The Boston Globe does not identify sexual assault victims.

“I now get to live with what this man did to me every single day of my life while he continues on with his day, happy that he got away with a crime,’’ the victim said.

After she complained to the school about its handling of the case, UMass officials reviewed their records and determined that Willenbrock had not sent her disciplinary decision to a superior for approval. That is the standard procedure at the university, Kim said, and they could find no other case in which it had not been followed.

In response, the university has issued written rules requiring this type of upper-level review.

Kim said UMass, however, cannot go back and issue a more serious sanction against the student, who is due to graduate in May.

“Reversing a decision is not an option,’’ Kim said. “I think it is really unfortunate that this took place, and we are making the adjustment that we need to make.’’

UMass Amherst has a consortium grant, meaning it collects and reports sexual assault information from its campus and from four other colleges: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith. UMass reported 54 sexual assaults during the five-year period, but only 42 went to review boards. Of that group, 26 were from UMass, with the remainder from the other schools, a UMass spokesman said.

Data from the Justice Department reports are being entered into a national database by researchers at the University of Southern Maine and were shared with investigative reporters as part of a new journalism collaborative being led by the Center for Public Integrity.

School officials said that, despite their best intentions, the problem of campus sexual assault is extremely complex. There are generally no witnesses or physical evidence to prove a victim’s allegation, they said.

During the five-year time period, the schools reported 24 suspensions. An additional 59 sanctions were issued when students were found responsible. The sanctions involved getting counseling, performing community service, writing a letter of “personal reflection,’’ or staying away from the victim, according to the data and interviews with advocates and attorneys representing victims, school administrators, and judicial conduct officers.

Some New England schools that have received several grants from the Justice Department have not suspended or expelled any student for sexual assault during this time period, the data show. Tufts University, one of those schools, which reported 48 sexual assaults to the Justice Department, has also never issued reprimands, sent the accused in those cases for counseling, or required them to do community service, the data show. Tufts has been given $1.3 million in campus grant funds since 1999, Justice Department records show.

In a written statement, Kim Thurler, Tufts spokeswoman, said the federal statistics do not reflect Tufts’ efforts to combat sex crimes on campus. Thurler said most Tufts students who report sexual assault do not want to pursue discipline, but she declined to provide specific numbers.

She also said sanctions Tufts has taken are not reflected in the Justice Department statistics, such as campus stay-away orders, even though other schools included them in their progress reports. Thurler declined to explain why Tufts did not report those actions to the Justice Department.

Tufts allows students to engage in mediation to settle an allegation of sexual assault, a strategy strongly discouraged by both the Justice Department and the US Department of Education.

“Tufts is committed to creating and maintaining an environment in which all members of our community feel safe and respected,’’ reads a statement from the university.

MIT officials said 10 of the 19 women who reported a sexual assault chose not to pursue campus discipline, the data indicate. An additional four reports were dropped for lack of evidence, the data show. The remaining reports resulted in no sanctions, the Justice Department data show.

“Very few cases get to the Committee on Discipline,’’ said Maryanne Kirkbride, clinical director for campus life.

“We know, in general, it’s incredibly difficult to get victims to come forward, let alone encourage them to pursue charges against their perpetrators on campus or go public and relive the event.’’

Salem State College, which reported eight alleged assaults, issued one suspension and no other form of discipline, according to the federal data. Officials there declined comment.

Northeastern University, which reported 18 alleged assaults, issued one suspension, one expulsion, and one order for counseling. Officials there did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Measuring the number of sexual assaults that occur on campuses is a singularly challenging task, said James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University.

“Crime is difficult to measure anyway, but rape is the most difficult,’’ Fox said. “On campus, a large share of the crimes are not stranger rape; they are date rape. I don’t think we’ll ever get a precise statistic. I don’t think colleges know, and I don’t think they’ll ever know. We’ll have an estimate which will be an undercount.’’

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University is a collaborative codirected by Joe Bergantino and Maggie Mulvihill. Other contributors to this report were Andrea LePain, Lisa Chedekel, Sarah Favot, and Jaime Lutz. Other partners are WBUR, New England Cable News, El Planeta, and New England Ethnic News. A video version of this report can be found on www.boston.com.

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