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Kirsten Gillibrand

Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, May 8, 2015

For this week’s roundup we have two different articles focusing on different aspects of the data released last Tuesday by the Department of Education and a list of seven things to know about CASA from the National Law Review.

Good News: The Number of Reported Sexual Assaults is Up

The data released by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Federal Student Aid office (FSA) last Tuesday in response to a request from Senators Barbara Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tim Kaine, confirmed a trend we’ve noted earlier —the number of reported sexual assaults on college campuses has been and continues to increase dramatically. In 2009, 3,300 assaults were reported. In 2013, there were over 6,000 reports. As we and others have covered extensively, this is a positive development in the fight against campus sexual violence, suggesting that increased awareness has made students feel more comfortable reporting incidents of sexual violence than they did in the past. However, as pointed out by this article from the Christian Science Monitor, the number of reported assaults still trails far behind the numbers reported in anonymous surveys, indicating there is still much work to do.

Bad News: The Length of OCR Investigations is Also Up

One unfortunate side effect of the federal government’s aggressive efforts to address campus sexual violence is a dramatic increase in the average length of Title IX investigations. The same report discussed in the above story reveals that the average OCR investigation now takes 1,469 days—around four years, meaning that even a student who filed a complaint as a freshman would graduate before the investigation was resolved. As this piece from Bloomberg Business points out, there are serious consequences of an investigation dragging on that long—solutions to the problems that led to the complaint are delayed, the facts of the pertinent cases become more difficult to ascertain, and victim/survivors are denied closure. However, as the renewed focus on sexual assault leads to more and more complaints and investigations, the OCR has seen its budget cut — reducing its full-time staff from 1,148 to 544 between 1980 and 2014 — contributing to delays and a backlog of cases.  The President’s budget proposal and Senators Kaine, Boxer, and Gillibrand have called for increased funding for the OCR.

The National Law Review Tells You What You Need to Know About CASA

If you follow this blog regularly you’ll have seen this analysis of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, the proposed law with bipartisan support that would introduce new, more stringent regulations for how colleges and universities handle sexual harassment and violence. The article above, published by the National Law Review, highlights seven aspects of the proposed law you should be aware of, including increased fines, a Campus Climate Survey requirement, and broader reporting requirements.

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How Can Campuses Improve Reporting?
Posted by On Monday, November 17, 2014

After schools released their Annual Clery Reports last month, it became apparent that the number of reported sexual assaults was on the rise. But rather than interpreting these numbers as a crime wave on college campuses, most experts saw the increase as a good sign. It meant that awareness about sexual assault was spreading on campuses, reporting procedures were improving, and survivors felt more comfortable coming forward. As the headline at the Huffington Post announced, “Colleges are Reporting More Sexual Assaults, And That’s A Great Sign.”

But if schools want to improve reporting even more, what are some steps they can take to make it happen?

Inform Students What Constitutes Sexual Violence

The reasons survivors of sexual violence choose not to report their assault to the police are complex and varied. There are of course obvious factors like the availability and accessibility of resources. Other important factors that can influence the decision to report include shame, fear of retaliation, distrust of authorities, and cultural or familial pressures.

Research also suggests, however, that how students understand an incident influences whether or not they report. According to the Campus Sexual Assault Study (2007), the most common reasons for not reporting were related to individuals’ perception of the incident. Over half of all victims who didn’t go to the police said they didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report and over a third didn’t report because they were unsure that what they experienced was a crime.

Similarly, when studying the informal disclosure of intimate partner violence, researchers Kateryna Sylaska and Katie Edwards found that the motives the survivors attributed to their partner’s violence also mattered. When individuals attributed their partner’s violence to “anger or jealousy” they were more likely to talk to someone than when they attributed that violence to “controlling, protecting, or a loving motive.” This research points to the importance of teaching students what behaviors qualify as sexual assault. Many students simply don’t know.

Train Your Campus on How to Respond to Disclosures

Most survivors, however, do tell someone about their assault. It’s just that most choose not to go to the police, campus authorities, or formal support services. For example, according to the Campus Sexual Assault study, while only 16% of physically forced sexual assault victims and 8% of incapacitated sexual assault victims visited a formal support service, and a paltry 13% and 2% respectively went to a law enforcement agency, 70% and 64% disclosed to someone close to them: a friend, family member, roommate, or intimate partner. Thus, if we wish to help survivors, it might be worthwhile to train students, faculty, and staff on how to respond when someone discloses a sexual assault to them. These informal support networks can also give survivors information about physical and mental health services they need and act as conduits to other university resources.

Give Survivors Choices

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind, that not all responses to survivor’s disclosures are equally helpful. Some can dissuade them from seeking further help or even re-traumatize them. In their research, Sylaska and Edwards discovered some important facts about what reactions survivors found helpful.

Helpful reactions included

• providing emotional support,
• allowing the victim to talk about the abuse, and
• providing practical or tangible support (like a place to stay).

Negative reactions included

• pressuring the victim to act in a certain way,
• not taking the violence seriously, or
• blaming the victim.

Survivor responses to advice were mixed. Advice was helpful when sought, the researchers found, but unsolicited advice felt frustrating and disempowering. This is why pressuring a survivor to report can actually be harmful. After all, a survivor’s goals don’t always align with formal reporting. As one activist explained, “a survivor’s number one priority is not necessarily to get their perpetrator arrested, it’s about moving forward and feeling safe in one’s community and healing.” Indeed, one ongoing controversy currently debated on college campuses is the extent to which faculty and staff are required to report to higher ups when students disclose a sexual assault to them. Advocates worry that requiring employees to report takes control away from survivors, potentially inflicting more distress on them.

Given the emphasis on supporting survivor autonomy, however, there is a hopeful shift at some schools and police departments to a victim-centered approach, which focuses on the needs of the survivor. New York Magazine recently profiled the program “You Have Options” developed by Police Detective Carrie Hull for the Ashland Police Department. You Have Options gives survivors more control over their case, including the whether to pursue the complaint as an “anonymous tip or a full criminal investigation” and the option to “upgrade or downgrade their investigation at any time.” The program also follows best practices regarding interviewing victims and ensuring they are well supported throughout the process. Indeed, Hull’s original aim was to create a space where victims felt comfortable talking to the police. “We found we needed to get people to a place they didn’t feel like they were being pulled or pushed through the process,” Hull elaborated in the  article. “And instead they were leading the way.”

During Senator Claire McCaskill’s third roundtable on campus sexual violence, Hull talked about the program and her initial reservations that giving victims more control might hinder police from catching perpetrators. But she soon realized that this mindset was exactly wrong. The victims are “never responsible for the offender doing that next offense,” she explained. “The offender is responsible for that next offense, not the victim…what I think we have to realize is that we are doing something about it by allowing a survivor to enter the criminal justice system in the way that’s right for them” (1:02:46).

And Hull’s approach has had overwhelming positive results. According to New York Magazine, reports have increased by 106 percent since the program officially began last year. “We shifted our focus as a team to what does a survivor want, and out of that came better healing, but also identifying way more perpetrators,” Hull said.

A similar program has now been developed at the Southern Oregon University in Ashland and Hull’s program served as the model for proposals in Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand’s Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Perhaps You Have Options can serve as an example for other programs around the country.

 

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