April 26, 2002

Campus Response to Sex Crimes

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In 2000, eight on-campus sex offenses were reported to the Cornell University Police Department, according to Officer Rich Brewer of the CUPD.

“Rape is one of the most underreported crimes,” said Nina Cummings, victim’s advocate at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services. Women who report rape often find themselves frustrated with the results.

“Six or seven cases go before the J.A. [Judicial Administrator] every year, but no one is ever found in violation,” said a student who pressed charges against another student both on campus in the J.A.’s office and in the Ithaca judicial system.

According to another woman who also reported a sexual assault, “The J.A. does everything they can to make sure that no one is ever charged. If a guy is charged with rape, Cornell has to report it, and that looks really bad for the University.”

Phoebe Brown, the sexual assault coordinator for the CVSA, said that the service has gotten “a good number of calls from Cornell students.” Cummings saw seven students in the fall semester.

Keli Nielson of the Task Force for Battered Women estimated that the service has worked with ten or twelve Cornell students in the past year.

“We estimate that for every one rape that is reported, there are at least ten more that have occurred,” Brewer said.

Cummings said that the actual number of sex offenses that happen during the school year is even higher than Brewer’s estimate.

According to Cummings, the current statistics estimate that one in four or one in five college women will be the victim of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault during her college years.

Brown noted that the discrepancy between reported rapes and the assumed actual number of rapes is because “most women are afraid to report it. A lot of times, rather than report the offense, they tell no one.”

Cummings added that many women don’t report offenses because “they don’t define what happened as rape.”

Both students who spoke wished to remain anonymous because they said they have felt pressure from the J.A.’s office to remain silent about the hearing board’s proceedings in their cases. One woman received a letter warning of future punishment from the J.A. after she discussed with various groups on campus her belief that she had been treated wrongfully throughout the hearing board’s proceedings.

“The J.A.’s office didn’t do their job. If they’re not going to do their job, then I need to seek aid and advocacy elsewhere,” she said.

In discussing the case publicly, and in writing, she violated the J.A.’s policies on maintaining strict confidentiality, policies that are backed up by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Under FERPA, a student must consent before his or her educational records can be released.

“We take FERPA very seriously. Disciplinary records are educational records just like a person’s transcript. We can’t give out that private information without permission,” J.A. Mary Beth Grant said.

“The Code states that people can’t talk about the specifics of proceedings,” she continued.

However, according to S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, a non-profit victim’s advocacy group based in Pennsylvania, the J.A.’s office violated the victim’s first amendment rights, the federal Jeanne Clery Act’s Campus Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights and Title IX.

“These are very serious allegations,” Carter wrote in a letter to President Hunter R. Rawlings III.

“FERPA was never designed to silence a student who had legitimate grievances. A victim should not be silenced,” Carter said in an interview. “Our fundamental issue is that the J.A. seems to be accountable to no one. They’re supposed to be accountable to the community, but it seems very clear that no one in the community knows what goes on. Victims are not given justice. The community is not protected.”

Grant, however, said that the community can in fact find out what goes on in J.A. proceedings.

“There is a public record maintained in the J.A.’s office, and the J.A.’s office does put out an annual report that comes out in the fall for the preceding academic year,” she said.

Carter and his agency also believe that Cornell’s J.A.’s office in violation because when one of the women went through the on campus hearing, she alleges that she was told she was not allowed to have a lawyer.

“There’s no legal help for victims on this campus. I thought the J.A. was supposed to put the case together. But I never knew what the J.A. was planning because I was never in that room. She also told me I wasn’t allowed to have a lawyer, which is illegal,” she said.

According to Grant, however, complainants “are allowed to have a personal advisor, and that advisor may be an attorney. But that doesn’t mean that attorney gets to participate in the proceedings.”

The Campus Code of Conduct states “the charges shall be presented by the Judicial Administrator in the name of the complainant.”

But one of the women said, “The J.A. presents the charges, but not in the name of the complainant, no matter what they say. It’s in the name of Cornell.”

One of the women said that the J.A. held its hearing before Ithaca had a chance to hold its own. She felt that incriminating evidence was revealed during the campus hearing. Since either side can use hearsay in a J.A. hearing, evidence that would not have been admissible in a regular court could be admissible at the campus hearing.

According to Grant, “The District Attorney can subpoena the evidence from our proceedings, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically admissible in the criminal court proceeding.”

Grant would not comment on the specifics of any of particular case in question.

Complainants claim that the proceedings themselves are also stacked against them.

“The J.A. who was supposed to be representing me didn’t even try. Someone actually asked her if she was going to object at one point because what was being presented by the other lawyer was so absurd. They brought in witness after witness who defamed my character, basically calling me a slut who was in love with this guy, but I wasn’t allowed to have any character witnesses,” one woman said.

“It’s up to us to make the decision as to which witnesses are relevant,” Grant said.

The women felt let down by the campus proceedings. “There’s really just no one there representing the victim,” said one of the women.

Some people argue that the problem is not within the J.A.’s office itself.

“The legal system is not particularly sympathetic to victims,” Cummings said.

“There may have been things about the process that may not have been victim-friendly, but the people who work at Cornell have always been as victim-friendly as they could be,” Nielson said.

Because the system can be so hard for victims to navigate, Gannett does not always encourage them to press charges.

“Sometimes going through that kind of process can be arduous and will pull focus from healing. Even when you do press charges, there’s little chance of getting a conviction,” Cummings said.

“We don’t have a party line that all women should press charges. For some women it’s important to press charges; for others it’s not the best thing,” said Sharon Dittman, the associate director of community relations for Gannett.

Some, however, have problems with Gannett’s philosophy.

“Any law officer would encourage people to press charge
s. If they have raped one person, they may rape another. If charges are filed and the person is found guilty, that may be a deterrent,” Brewer said.

“We would always encourage people to press charges because it creates a paper trail, and it hold people accountable, but that’s not always the safest thing to do, especially if you’re going to stay in the relationship,” Nielson said.

The victims say that either way, the state of the system is not supportive of those who decide to prosecute.

“After the trial, [the J.A.] took the stance that I was lying. They knew it happened; they just didn’t want it to happen. They did everything they could to pretend it didn’t happen,” one of the women said.

“Look, they’re trying to protect themselves. They don’t care about protecting the women on this campus. I walked away from this knowing that no one cares about me on this campus,” another woman said.

Archived article by Freda Ready