It’s a dangerous time for sexual assaults on college campuses

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The seasons are just beginning to change. A hint of fall in the morning, blazing sun in the afternoons. Music is booming, spilling from speakers on porches into the streets of Louisville, Kentucky. The scene at the University of Louisville is repeated again and again on college campuses everywhere: college life is kicking off a new year. It’s also the time of year students are most likely to become victims of sexual assault.

“This is an exciting time to go to college,” Laela Kashan, an attorney at the Kentucky Association Of Sexual Assault Programs points out. “They’re going to learn new stuff, they’re starting a new chapter in their lives, and no one is thinking about these bad things that can happen.”

“It doesn’t just affect women, even though we’re in the period of what they call the ‘red zone’, the months of August, September, October, and November are higher reports of sexual assault, particularly among our freshmen college women,” LaMont Johnson said. He works with student groups at the University of Louisville through the Prevention, Education, and Advocacy on Campus and in the Community (PEACC) Program. “Everyone is impacted by this, and that’s really what the prevention approach is now, it’s just really making an effort to reach everybody.”

The University of Louisville holds workshops emphasizing intervention to increase sexual assault prevention by empowering active bystanders. The University of Kentucky has similar sessions and requires all incoming undergraduate students to take an online sexual assault prevention course.

Federal law requires this training in the college curriculum and a process for sexual offense grievances where the accusations are evaluated.

Sexual assault attorney Kashen says although laws like ‘Title IX’ mandate a framework for universities to address sex offenses it leaves many open doors. “It gives the specific, you have to do x, y, z, but then you [universities] have the room to make it look different. It is confusing, I think, for students,” Kashan said.

WHEN A SEXUAL ASSAULT IS REPORTED

 At the University of Louisville, a student could pursue action through the code of student conduct. The first step is talking with someone in the Student Affairs Office.

“What do they want the next steps to look like?” Dr. Angela Taylor said that is one key question they ask students that come to her office. She is the Assistant Provost for Student Affairs and Assistant Dean of Students at UofL.

At the University of Kentucky, once a student reports an incident they can choose to initiate the formal process. “That involves a full investigation by one of our investigators, an investigative report being written, a probable cause determination being made, and then either going to a hearing or closing the case,” Martha Alexander said. She is from the Office of Institutional Equity & Equal Opportunity Executive Director and Title Ix Coordinator at UK.

Students accused may also opt to accept sanctions and bypass the formal hearing at UK.

“Most of the people who have experienced sexual assault, who have worked with our office, have chosen not to request a hearing,” Alexander said.

WHEN A HEARING HAPPENS

If an accusation goes to a code of conduct hearing at UofL, then a three-person disciplinary panel recommends action to Dr. Angela Taylor and she decides the punishment. “Then both parties, if we’re speaking about sexual misconduct cases, can appeal to our Dean of Students, Chief Student Affairs Officer,” Dr. Taylor told us. Punishments could range but expulsion could be considered.

At UK, a three-person panel hears the case and determines if the alleged behavior occurred and if it violated policy. “They have to come to a unanimous decision on that, so all three people have to agree that somebody was responsible, if they can’t get to unanimous, then it’s a non-responsible finding,” Alexander said.

The main difference between the two university policies, at UK, if found ‘responsible’ only the accused can appeal but the accuser cannot. That change took place during the last academic year.

“It changed to really become more in line with our student conduct policies because that’s how the appeals work in student conduct,” Alexander explained.

WHEN SOMEONE IS RESPONSIBLE 

“Have you ever had to expel somebody?” John Charlton asked Dr. Taylor, UofL Assistant Dean of Students.

After some hesitation, Dr. Taylor replied, “Yes”.

Through open records requests FOCUS obtained two-pages of records from UofL. For the last five years, there were only six cases of a student found to be ‘responsible’ for what the University calls ‘Sexually Abusive Contact’ and every sanction was a suspension.

Students at UofL were suspended for what is classified as rape in Kentucky: for having sex with the victim who was passed out, for “forcibly” holding down the victim and violating them, as well as an “interim suspension” for a student deemed responsible for molesting a child not even 12 years old. Dr. Taylor said none of the students suspended returned to school.

The University of Louisville did not provide the total number of sexual assault accusations.

The University of Kentucky’s numbers, per our request, show sexual assault cases have gone up academic year to year, since 2015.

“The main reason I think that people are coming forward more is because they know more about what we can offer them,” Alexander said. She also told us that during that time they increased training for staff and students.

Out of the 256 cases, UK found seven instances where someone was found responsible.

Reporting may be up, but Kashan has concerns about the low numbers of students found “responsible.”

“I understand each case is complicated and has its own facts, but in general if you have say for example 30 reports and zero responsible, that’s going to cause us some red flags,” Kashen said.

COMPARED WITH CRIME REPORTING ON CAMPUS

Dr. Taylor acknowledged that an attack induced by drugs or alcohol could involve criminal offenses and said those are conversations they share with students. “A student could make a decision to go through the criminal process working with our University Police,” she told us.

Campus police, as required under the federal Clery Act, provide crime statistics.

At UofL, there were zero sex offenses reported to campus police in 2017 and just a few reported in 2016 and 2015, according to the latest available data.

At UK, there were 41 sex offenses reported to campus police in 2017, according to the annual campus safety and security report but UK also had about ten thousand more students enrolled for the fall semester of 2017-2018.

Laela Kashan, with the “Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs,” said the number of sex offenses are not consistent with what really is happening at colleges across the country. “For example, when you have a school with zero reports, is that because they’re not sharing accurately with the federal government the number of reports they’ve had or is it because students don’t feel comfortable going to them?” Kashan said, “But it’s more concerning to see that there are zero reports for many reasons versus that reports are increasing.”

INCOMPLETE EVALUATION

Although UK and UofL admit to struggles inside the “Red Zone”, at this point, we can’t correlate the frequency of sexual assault cases with the first few weeks of class at the Universities in our area.

The University of Kentucky denied our requests for month to month numbers, claiming that could identify the students involved.

We are appealing to the state Attorney General, and have also appealed a similar argument from UofL.

“We also would like to know what were the outcomes in those cases, I think that gives us a fuller picture of how schools are handling reports, and what outcomes are happening for survivors,” Kashan said.

“We have made progress in Kentucky on a lot of issues around sexual assault and how we address it, but we haven’t yet made enough progress within the educational system,” Kashan said.

PARENTS, MAKE SURE YOUR STUDENT KNOWS:

  • security options at their college (some universities offer safety escort, after-hours shuttle services in addition to campus police and security. Do they know how and where to report any incident)
  • what resources are available even if they don’t want to tell you.
  • if someone is sexually assaulted, it is never their fault
  • sexual consent is never implied

MORE INFORMATION:

For UofL student, staff and faculty

For UK student, staff and faculty

TO CONNECT WITH A CRISIS CENTER:

Call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) a nationwide free 24/7 hotline

Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs has 13 rape crisis centers across Kentucky.

Find location and contact info here.