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Shedding Light on a Hidden Problem: Campus Sexual Assault

Credit Greg Verdino/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s commencement weekend for many colleges and universities in Connecticut. Among them is Wesleyan University in Middletown, where there’s been a lot of talk this year about a subject that’s often buried in a culture of silence: campus sexual assault.

In the first of a series of stories on the issue, WNPR’s Diane Orson reports on how the university judicial process handled the case of a 2010 graduating senior named Eve, who’s asked that we not use her last name.

Eve is from Nebraska, 23 years old, an Art History major, and like many graduating seniors, she's excited about commencement this weekend. Eve is also part of a staggering statistic that can be found in a report funded by the US Department of Justice: One in five women in college will become a victim of rape or attempted rape before they graduate. Eve was sexually assaulted in Wesleyan University’s Olin Library this past March. She’d stayed after hours to work with another student in a basement lab.

"We hear a knock on the door. She looks up and she says oh, he’s from a class of mine. I don’t really know him. She lets him in. I’m going to say we are sitting in a locked room at this point because its like after 5:00. So he comes in and he really seems a little bit disoriented and he sees me. I had never seen this individual on campus. And he like walks straight to me and makes some derogatory comment about what I’m doing and then immediately grabs the back of my head, biting my neck, faces,  bruise marks digging into my clothes, going under  my, you know, down my pants you know, just I try to stand up, he pushes me down."

At first, the other student in the lab mistook the attack for friendly roughhousing, but soon realized that Eve was being sexually assaulted. "So she pulls him off me and we throw him out. He tries to fight us. We kick him out of the lab. We lock the door. And it’s a glass door and he’s there banging on the door trying to get back in."

They waited until the attacker left the library. Eve went back to her apartment, and called campus public safety.

"And they found him. And he was coming down from some drug, at this point we didn’t know what. According to him, he couldn’t remember exactly what he did, but he didn’t deny it. No one ever really talked about going to the police at this point because everyone was like, you weren’t raped. You just have bruises and bite marks. You know, its like... I was very lucky in the scope of things."

The school’s judicial hearing took place a week later. This process is required under Title Nine of the Education Amendments of 1972. Diane Rosenfeld is a lecturer on law at Harvard University and an expert on campus sexual assault. "All schools are obligated to have hearings and they’re supposed  to provide for prompt and equitable adjudications of any complaints of sexual misconduct or sexual assault."

That means that regardless if police are involved or charges are filed, the school is required to follow its own judicial process. Rick Culliton is assistant vice-president and Dean of Students at Wesleyan.

"We’ve had five cases this year that have been reported this year, cases of sexual misconduct and assault. In four of those cases the panel of trained staff and faculty found the student who was charged responsible. And depending upon the particulars of that situation they’ve been sanctioned accordingly."

But a nine-month study on campus sexual assault nationwide by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC finds that students found responsible often face little or no punishment from school administrations. Writer Kristin Lombardi worked on the investigation.

"We reviewed a database of schools maintained by the Justice Department and found that responsible findings rarely lead to tough punishment like expulsion or even protracted suspension."

In Eve’s case, her attacker, who's also a senior, took responsibility for the assault and was put on probation. He was to perform 30 hours of community service, was not allowed to attend any commencement celebrations and was not allowed to walk at graduation. He was also placed under a restraining order, and told to stay away from Eve. Then, about two weeks later, she learned that he’d appealed his decision, and a portion of the appeal was granted. He would be allowed to walk at commencement this weekend with his class.

Eve demanded a meeting with university President, Michael Roth."And I said, how could you allow him to walk at graduation? This is like a symbol, you know, of the university. Do you really want to give this guy a diploma in front of all these people? After he’s done that."

According to Eve, President Roth said he felt the assailant was not a threat to other students.

Eve’s assault coincided with Wesleyan’s student newspaper publishing several articles about claims of campus sexual assault, and the university's reaction to those claims. President Roth could not be reached for comment for this story, but following a conversation earlier this month about the subject on WNPR's Where We Live, Roth sent a letter, calling for the formation of a task force aimed at improving school policies.

And faculty recently met with administration to discuss the issue. But, American studies professor Claire Potter says there was no direct discussion of Eve’s case.  

"I think the only reference made to it was regret on the part of the president that it had turned out the way it had been. But it becomes a basis for us to say all right, how do we move forward from something in which there were so many people who wanted to do the right thing but it didn’t work out?"Potter says faculty, administrators and students are calling for the creation of a staff position dedicated to addressing campus sexual violence - next academic year.  Meanwhile, Eve, the student responsible for the attack and the rest of Wesleyan's graduating seniors - receive their diplomas on Sunday.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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