UT’s response to rape fails to protect students

Katelyn Sack

Prosecutors recently indicted Penn State’s ex-President Graham Spanier for allegedly covering up the Sandusky child abuse scandal. University presidents, take note: Inadequate oversight of internal procedures can now land you in jail. Something needs to be done about UT’s official response to the rape and sexual assault of its students, because the current policy favors institutional interests over those of students at every turn. The University has a moral responsibility to give survivors access to records relating to their complaints, confirmation of appropriate crime reporting, full information about their options and legal assistance. That responsibility has not been fulfilled.

It starts when a survivor attempts to report a rape. Every common survivor contact point at UT — including the Office of the Dean of Students, UTPD and Legal Services for Students — fails to inform survivors of their full range of options for responding to rape. These options are criminal, University and civil complaints. UT’s policy does not include the civil complaint as an option.

Civil complaints are almost always survivors’ best reporting option. The standard of proof in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt” — around 99 percent — compared to “a preponderance of evidence” in a civil case — around 51 percent. Civil complaints have a higher success rate because their standard of proof is about half as high as that of criminal complaints. According to UT, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) makes internal UT investigations nontransparent and thus incomparable. Survivors are only privy to the outcome, not the factors in making the decision.

These relative success rates matter. The outcome of a rape report can be evidence to a survivor of whether the world believes him or her. Thus, scholars Patricia Martin and Marlene Powell call the experience of reporting sexual assault to police a “dual assault” for survivors. Unsuccessful criminal complaints are the norm, and they can cause survivors to feel even less safe. It stands to reason that if police do not believe you, they are not going to protect you.

The U.S. arrest rate for rape is only 24 percent out of all reported incidents, and the probability that a criminal rape report leads to conviction and prison sentencing for the perpetrator is in the single digits. Criminal complaints are vastly more likely to land survivors, not rapists, in police interrogation rooms. Furthermore, in criminal cases survivors risk imprisonment for refusing to testify before their attackers in court. This criminalizes a normal response to violent injury — fear

Civil complaints carry no such risk. And unlike criminal or University complaints, they let survivors suggest appropriate remedies. Dean Soncia Reagins-Lilly states that as a practice in some cases, the University or the Office of the Dean of Students asks students involved in disputes or conflicts including reported rape incidents what outcome they feel would be an appropriate resolution to the situation. The University does not publish criteria or other data on when and how often this occurs. Conversely, incarceration of the rapist is the optimal outcome of a criminal rape complaint. Incarceration means placing the rapist in a cage where he himself will have a double-digit probability of being sexually assaulted. Some survivors might prefer other remedies.

Survivors who are informed of the risks and benefits of all their reporting options would likely favor civil complaints over criminal or University ones, but at UT, the policy is to not even give them the option.

It gets worse. After the complaint has been made, the victims are prevented from knowing whether their case is being adequately investigated. The Office of the Dean of Students, citing FERPA, requires releases from both parties — the survivor and the alleged perpetrator — in order to release records relating to investigations of complaints of a sexual nature, except when those complaints meet definition of sexual assault. This means some survivors can’t access their complaint records to determine why UT won’t let them access their records.

Ironically, UT’s self-protecting responses to rape may endanger the institution’s longer-term interests and those of its most powerful administrators. If survivors were to realize that their experiences are not unique, but representative of larger patterns of institutional misconduct in response to rape, their stories might generate serious external pressures for reform. For example, the Department of Education might review the nontransparent records classifications that curtail survivors’ access to complaint records. Press from the results of such a review might harm UT’s reputation and fundraising capacity. Correspondence detailing high-level knowledge of some erroneous classifications and inadequate procedures might even cause individual administrators to incur criminal or civil liability.

Shame often keeps survivors silent. But the shame belongs to UT for its inadequate response to rape. UT’s moral imperative to assist injured students should be even more obvious when students are injured by other members of the same community of trust, but here the University has dropped the ball.

Sack is a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program class of 2005. She researches administrative decision-making and advocates for students at the University of Virginia.