Despite public efforts to increase sexual assault awareness, university officials are still struggling to win justice for victims.
Sexual assault continues to be one of the most enigmatic crimes affecting students at this university, said Andrea Goodwin, Office of Student Conduct director. Officials know it happens, but so few victims come forward that it’s almost impossible to tell how widespread the issue really is. And though officials said they are working to make the incident reporting process easier, some students said there are still too many hurdles to cross.
One in five women will be victims of sexual assault during college, according to national statistics, and they are most likely to become victims during the first few weeks of their freshman and sophomore years of college. About 54 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to police, a study by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network found.
And this university isn’t immune to the national trends. Students reported just 41 assaults to Goodwin’s office between 2002 and 2011 — a small fraction of how many incidents Goodwin believes actually took place.
“Sexual assault is way under-reported to our office at the university,” Goodwin said.
There are so many barriers to investigating assault, it’s unsurprising women are hesitant to report them, said Stephanie Rivero, Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Program’s assistant director.
The university’s process for dealing with assault reports puts victims face-to-face with the person they said assaulted them, Goodwin said.
“The legal procedure makes survivors feel a little stuck, when all they want to do is work through it and move on,” Rivero said. “It’s a big challenge to delve into that place of trauma multiple times, and it can inhibit healing.”
The Office of Student Conduct holds a court hearing for every case brought to them. Both the victim and the accused share their sides of the story with a group of three student members and two faculty, who then evaluate the evidence and make a decision. Punishments range anywhere from an academic sanction to expulsion, but only if the board convicts the suspect or the victim decides to go through with the hearing. Of the 41 cases reported to the office, 14 resulted in a guilty verdict.
With such a low conviction rate, assaulted students have reason to doubt the conduct process will be successful in seeking retribution, said Keira Martone, resident student conduct manager.
Seventeen documented incidents between 2007 and 2012 occurred within dorms, Martone said. Many reports came from friends and roommates of the victims, who ultimately rejected to participate in the conduct process, Martone said.
“I know a lot of victims think that by reporting it, they’re making a big deal out of what happened to them and really dragging it out,” said Gina Han, a junior animal sciences and psychology major.
The school has tried to address the problem, Martone said. In 2012, the University Senate voted to lessen the standard of evidence for sexual assault convictions from “clear and convincing evidence” to “preponderance of evidence,” meaning that guilty verdicts could hinge on evidence the Office of Student Conduct believed was most likely true.
“I was hoping that with changing the standard of evidence, that it would have an influence on sexual assault reporting, but it hasn’t really,” Martone said. “We have done good work in trying to create a safe environment for students, but I think we still have some work to do.”
Partnering a mentor with each victim could help the conduct process, Han said.
“I’m sure that it’s scary to go through that process by yourself,” she said. “Victims need someone to help them through the court process and help them sort out their feelings as they go through it.”
It’s becoming clearer, Martone said, that the fight against sexual assault isn’t just institutional. It’s one that requires social change and an environment that encourages victims to stand up instead of hide, she added.
“I wish more survivors would come forward,” she said. “We will not be able to make any changes unless students go through this process.”
Some students, such as freshman journalism major Demi Chang, said more resources should be offered to and made more accessible for victims of sexual assault cases.
“[The university] should let students know that they are not alone in this,” Chang said. “Sexual assault is not shameful, and it’s not the victim’s fault.”
SARPP officials said they’re focusing on educational programs to try to combat the stigma that keeps many victims from coming forward. SARPP staff now learn the tenets of Green Dot, which trains staff and students to stand up instead of act as bystanders to a situation.
“Green Dot encourages the idea that everyone can work together and get rid of sexual assault on campus,” Rivero said.
In January, UMD Feminists President and former Diamondback editor in chief Lauren Redding submitted a proposal to the University Senate that would mandate sexual assault prevention education for all students through the SARPP office. A petition posted on Change.org to pass the bill has since received nearly 1,500 supporters.
That initiative could encourage more students to report sexual assault and gain awareness of issues such as consent, the influence of alcohol on sexual assault and the effects of assault on survivors, said Morgan Powell, the incoming vice president of UMD Feminists.
“There is a large lack of awareness and education, and this program would reach out across campus to address this issue,” Powell said. “Sexual assault needs to be talked about, because it’s really everyone’s problem, not just a women’s problem.”