March 18, 2014

University: Reports of Sexual Assault at 23-Year High

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Reports of sexual assault have risen to a 23-year high at Cornell, a sign that efforts to educate community members about sexual violence have been working, administrators say.

From 1990 to 2007, the University documented an average of three reports of sexual assault a year; in the 2012-13 academic year, there were 23 reported cases, according to Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88. While editorials, awareness campaigns and lawsuits have warned that campuses are facing a rape epidemic, Cornell administrators say they consider the University’s recent uptick in reports an indication that more students know where they can turn to for help.

“Everyone agrees our numbers [of reports] are likely to go up,” Grant said. “We shouldn’t look at a rise in reports as a negative thing; we should see it as a positive thing because more people are getting support, either through counseling, housing changes, class schedule changes or investigations into the sexual misconduct.”

Grant’s statement may surprise some, who have argued at protests and community events that a campus culture condoning violence against women and minorities is to blame for the uptick in reports. Yet Grant says that, given how underreported sexual assault is, it is unlikely the JA’s office has heard “more than a fraction of cases that might be referred.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during her college years. In the most recent academic year for which statistics were available, just 23 students — out of more than 20,000 undergraduates and graduate students — reported being sexually assaulted at Cornell. Based on what national statistics suggest, if every student who was sexually assaulted reported his or her attack to campus authorities, the University would handle thousands of more cases every year.“We shouldn’t look at a rise in reports as a negative thing.” — Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88

But there are nowhere near thousands of cases being reported to Cornell police in a given year. What the discrepancy shows is that “there are a lot of people who are experiencing sexual assault during their college years, whether on campus or elsewhere, that could be receiving support who aren’t because we don’t know about it,” Grant said.

A Perception That ‘It’s Not Happening in Our Backyard’

Since a high-profile string of sexual assaults were reported in fall 2012, the University has ramped up efforts to educate students, faculty and staff about sexual violence. New students learn about sexual assault and consent during orientation; fraternity brothers train to intervene in risky situations; and faculty and staff are completing a program on eliminating harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The University has also made controversial changes to its policy on handling sexual assault cases.

“We’re starting to pay a great deal more attention to sexual assault this year than we have in recent years,” said Nina Cummings M.S. ’92, health educator and victim advocate at Gannett Health Services.

Yet in some ways, these efforts — while palpable signs of change in the campus’ rules and culture — are not enough, students say.

“There’s still a perception that [sexual assault] doesn’t happen here — that it’s not happening in our backyard,” said Juliana Batista ’16, women’s issues representative for the Student Assembly. “There are tons of situations where people who have been assaulted won’t go to the J.A. or police because they don’t want to talk about what happened.”

Melissa Lukasiewicz ’14 went further, saying although she thinks Cornell has made strides in educating the community about sexual assaults, the campus culture seems to remain “one that perpetuates the acceptance of sexual violence and may even encourage it.”

“It’s a culture in which rape and sexual assault, often against women or gender diverse people, are common. It’s a culture in which prevalent attitudes condone, normalize, excuse and encourage sexualized violence,” said Lukasiewicz.

Students’ hesitation to report cases may be exacerbated by the lack of medical professionals on campus who can collect evidence in the aftermath of a sexual assault, said E.E. Hou ’15, president and creative director of the Every1 Campaign, which organizes educational photoshoots about consensual sex.

While Gannett offers counseling, referrals and medical services to students who have been assaulted, students who want to collect evidence to bring their attacker to court have no choice but to go to Cayuga Medical Center within 72 hours of the attack. Because the hospital is miles away from campus and not easily accessible for students without a car, there is an “undue burden on students to get evidence,” Hou said.

All three students interviewed are hoping to make reporting sexual assaults easier by convincing the University to hire its own Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, a medical professional specialized in caring for and collecting evidence from victims of sexual assault and abuse. If students can walk into Gannett to have forensic samples taken, they may stand a better chance of bringing their attacker to court or providing evidence to the J.A.

“Because evidence in the wake of a sexual assault is so rare, and the burden of proof has recently been lowered due to [Policy] 6.4, a SANE nurse could strengthen the new investigative process by providing an avenue for more evidence,” Hou said. “Allowing survivors to go forward with cases when they wouldn’t be allowed to otherwise … can allow them to psychologically cope.”

Students: Bottom-Up Approach Needed to Fight Sexual Assault

The University’s Council on Sexual Violence and Prevention — formed in fall 2013 by President David Skorton to collaboratively address sexual assault at Cornell — has 48 members on its roster. Just five of those members are students.

The poor student representation on the council is perhaps a symptom of what Hou sees as a significant issue on campus: student leaders not being knowledgeable enough about sexual assault to effect meaningful change.

Even the administrators at the forefront of sexual assault prevention and adjudication efforts say they can only do so much. Students also need to help each other in their day-to-day lives, Grant said.

“Those of us who are in bed at 10 at night don’t have as strong a pulse on these issues like party life, academic life and extracurricular activities and don’t see firsthand what’s going on in students’ lives just day to day,” Grant said. “The more students who get involved, who say ‘we want people to be respected,’ who expect sexual activities to be safe, fun and sober enough to be consensual … the better.”

It may not take radical steps to get more students actively involved in primary prevention.

Research shows that perpetrators of sexual assault are often a small minority of the population who, in a White House report, were found to admit to committing an average of six rapes each. Perpetrators “offend multiple times, sometimes because we don’t have systems in place that can easily hold them accountable,” Cummings said.

“If in fact that’s true, we have a large critical mass of students who, by learning about and paying attention to risk factors and watching out for their friends, can make a difference,” Cummings said.