Policies hinder sexual assault survivors

Andrew Messamore

Student survivors of sexual assault may find themselves wrapped in red tape if they choose to seek justice by reporting their assault to the University.

Because of UT’s interpretation of state and federal statutes on the privacy of student records, UT will not inform students sexually assaulted by another student if their alleged perpetrator has been reported for other instances of assault on campus and will not provide records on the status of a UT investigation to either party until its completion.

The Daily Texan published two opinion columns on these and other UT policies last month. A UT alumna and administrative researcher wrote about policies that frustrate and inhibit support for student survivors at UT. A member of UT’s Voices Against Violence wrote in response to alert students to the resources that are available for sexual assault survivors.

In the first column, Katelyn Sack said the University fails to provide a community of trust for survivors by denying them access to investigation records and valuable information about their reporting options.

Sack is a writer and political scientist at the University of Virginia researching administrative decision-making. She worked at the U.Va. Women’s Center from 2002 to 2004 and has had additional advocacy experience as a volunteer and teacher.

“Shame often keeps survivors silent,” Sack said in her column. “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.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, close to 44 percent of sexual assault survivors nationwide choose not to report or seek legal solutions.

In all investigations, the University’s interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA, legally restricts the University from releasing records related to an investigation to students, including the students involved in the case.

Jeffery Graves, associate vice president for legal affairs, said the University’s policy was mandated by federal guidelines and not up for individual interpretation.

“There is nothing ambiguous about FERPA in this regard and thus nothing to interpret,” Graves said. “The disclosure may only include the final results of the disciplinary proceeding conducted by [UT] with respect to that alleged crime.”

In an interview with The Daily Texan, Sack said FERPA allows other possibilities for complaint response besides the policy now used by the University.

“All UT has to do under FERPA to ensure survivors can access their full complaint records is have both parties sign off on this disclosure prior to an investigation,” Sack said. “The institutional incentive to not give complainants and respondents alike this opportunity is again a self-interested one.”

Sack said the University reduces its liability by taking a broad interpretation of FERPA. For example, denying survivors and respondents access to records such as reports of previous sexual assaults by an alleged perpetrator reduces the chance of a lawsuit against UT for not punishing a repeatedly violent student.

Attempted and completed sexual assaults occur at a rate of 35 per every 1,000 female college students per year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Between 2009 and 2012, UT’s Voices Against Violence estimates that 2,625 sexual assaults occurred at UT, while only 76 were reported to the University.

“College rape is a multi-million dollar liability, particularly for a large institution like UT,” Sack said. “It’s actually astounding that no one has won a multi-million dollar settlement against UT relating to a rape complaint yet.”

Student survivors can use criminal or civil courts as well as an internal University system to report a sexual assault.

The Office of the Dean of Students does not inform students of civil court options, such as suing an attacker for damages, if a student reports to the office that he or she has been sexually assaulted.

Civil cases have a much higher conviction rate in sexual assault cases than criminal cases, partially because of the lower burden of proof required for conviction.

“Certainly students have civil options,” said dean of students Soncia Reagins-Lilly. “They are not elaborated in [University policy], but through Legal Services we certainly have that conversation with them and survivors understand they have an array of options.”

Reagins-Lilly said the Office of the Dean of Students refers survivors to Legal Services for Students, a branch of DOS that informs survivors of their civil options and provides free legal counsel to students. But Legal Services cannot counsel students sexually assaulted by another student because of a conflict of interest, said Raymond Schiflett, director of Legal Services for Students.

“If it’s an assault on one student by someone who is not a currently enrolled student, then we can provide that student with a full range of legal advice,” Schiflett said. “If it was another student who had allegedly committed this act, we would not be able to assist this student directly. We would refer them to another experienced civil court attorney.”

Schiflett said under state law, all students are potential clients of attorneys provided by UT, and attorneys cannot provide legal counsel to two of their own clients against each other.

UT’s Voices against Violence

Outside the Office of the Dean of Students, the University has a number of resources available for survivors of sexual assault through the Voices Against Violence program launched in the Counseling and Mental Health Center in 2001.

Jane Bost, associate director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, helped start the program with University support when she acquired a grant for UT’s Voices Against Violence in 2000. Since its inception, the program has provided counseling and advocacy for survivors, as well as training for thousands of students and staff at UT.

UT’s Voices Against Violence does not have the ability to access criminal reporting records, but along with the University of Texas Police Department, it provides criminal, University and civil information for survivors in case they decide to take legal action.

Bost said that while successful civil conviction might provide a feeling of social recognition and safety, most students do not pursue a lawsuit as a response to sexual assault.

“When someone comes in who has been sexually assaulted, they just aren’t interested in a lawsuit,” Bost said. “With all the clients that the VAV specialists have seen in the last 11 years, there has only been one student who has gone the civil route, and it’s not up to us to convince students otherwise.”

Since its inception, the UT chapter of Voices Against Violence has provided training on sexual assault to more than 150,000 UT staff, students and others.

Bost added that it is hard for college students to acquire civil attorneys because attorneys are only likely to take a civil case if an alleged perpetrator has enough assets to make the suit profitable.

Economics and international business junior Sydney Wilkins, a member of UT’s Voices Against Violence and author of the second of last month’s columns, said in an interview with The Daily Texan that it was inaccurate to say UT does not provide resources to survivors.

While the system is never perfect, Wilkins said, there are many people at the University working to provide resources and community for survivors.

“There’s a lot of excitement for activists about students coming out and talking about this issue, and the impact that could have for this campus,” Wilkins said. “My hope is that people will read about these columns and hear that, yeah there are horrible things going on, but there’s a lot we can do and I want people to be optimistic about all the change that can be done.”

Editor’s note: The Daily Texan hopes to further examine the problem of sexual assault on campus next semester. If you are a UT student or former student who has experienced sexual assault at UT, we hope to talk to you. We can discuss options to protect your privacy. Please email [email protected]

Printed on Friday, December 6, 2012 as:  Policies may deter sexual assault survivors