In light of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (aka April) being just around the corner, I’m very belatedly publishing a piece I wrote a few years ago about the manner in which Northeastern University handles sexual assault cases. It’s been over 2 years; what has changed since then? More cases, and not much reform from an institutional perspective. As always, many thanks to everyone involved in this piece, named and unnamed. Your voices are critical.
December 8, 2014
MEGAPHONE IN HAND, HELEN IS LOUD.
Her voice is cracking as she leads a chant at a rally against sexual assault in Centennial Commons at Northeastern University. Later, sitting in a study room in Northeastern’s library, her demeanor shifts. Gone is the chant-leader bounding around, calling energetically for the end of the patriarchy. Now, her speech is slow, her words specific.
It has been two years and two months since Helen—a third-year international relations and anthropology major—was raped. Standing before a crowd on an unseasonably warm November day, she bravely said, “I’ve been silent for too long.” But in the private setting of the study room, she is fidgety, picking at her cuticles and playing with her rings.
She speaks of her rape, the months of emotional and sexual abuse, and five months of stalking by her ex-boyfriend, as the dividing line between her childhood and adulthood. “I just feel that I’ve aged 100 years in the time that it took my friends to reach drinking age,” Helen says.
At a summer job, Helen met a coworker, the 20-year-old man who she would come to date, love and ultimately fear. When she met him, she was still a virgin and adamantly refused to have sex, a fact he badgered her about constantly.
She vividly remembers the night of the assault: August 14, 2012. She went into his room, thinking the night would be uneventful. Then, he took her pants off and she froze. She couldn’t say no, couldn’t get up and leave, couldn’t fight back. “I just let him do it because I didn’t know what else to do,” Helen says. “After, he said, ‘that wasn’t so bad.’”
Helen’s story is one of many in the controversial topic of sexual violence on college campuses. And as of November 5, 2014, Northeastern University joined the ever-growing list of colleges under federal investigation for inadequately addressing sexual misconduct. Over 85 schools nation-wide are currently under investigation for the violation of Title IX, the anti-sexual discrimination law that requires colleges to actively combat sexual violence on campus.
With the investigation of Northeastern underway, students and staff are taking time to reflect on the issues at hand. What exactly the responsibilities of the university are in regards to sexual violence and what that means for students are questions that need to be answered. Across the country, students and the federal government are holding colleges accountable for reducing sexual violence.
Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes, with only 60 percent of attacks being reported according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Helen never reported the incident for a number of reasons. First and foremost, she was afraid. Dating a coworker was against the rules of the company she and her rapist worked for, and Helen knew that if she brought anything up to her boss, she would be fired too. Secondly, her rapist wasn’t a stranger in an alley. He was her boyfriend. To Helen, there was no way someone she knew and cared for could rape her.
But according to Carlos Cuevas, an associate professor of criminology at Northeastern University, a high percentage of rapists actually do know their victims. Between 70 and 90 percent of attackers are known to their victims, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Study from 2005, 28 percent of attackers rape their intimate partners.
“Fifty percent don’t even tell family or a friend,” says Cuevas, whose research interests lie in sexual violence, victimization and trauma, and family violence. “Some of it’s due to being afraid the attacker will retaliate, but some of it’s due to the accessibility level of the system.”
RAINN estimates that every year, 237,869 people are victims of sexual assault, but the DOJ reports that only 26 percent of cases are filed with law enforcement agents. And on a college campus, less than one third of the reported cases will result in an expulsion of the accused.
Perhaps most notable is the case of Emma Sulkowicz, a student at Columbia University in New York, who has been carrying her mattress with her around the Ivy League campus in protest until the university expels her rapist. But Sulkowicz’s protest, and the media coverage that followed, is only one of many cases of college-based sexual violence that is garnering national attention.
The University of Virginia is in the spotlight, following an exposé by Rolling Stone about an alleged gang rape in a fraternity. Doubt has been cast over the validity of the story, with Rolling Stone issuing an apology for the piece, but friends of the featured survivor—known only as Jackie—have come forward to stand in solidarity.
In May, media outlets such as Buzzfeed, Salon, and Jezebel began reporting on the case of former Northeastern student, Katherine Rizzo. Rizzo was raped in 2011 and her assailant was found guilty following an investigation by the Northeastern University Police Department and hearing through the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution. However her rapist appealed the board’s decision and transferred to another university.
Many, upon hearing Sulkowicz’ and Rizzo’s cases, wonder how their attackers could receive no punishment. According to Cuevas, it’s not the university’s responsibility to play judge and jury.
“When you think about it, the university is here to educate people,” Cuevas says. “That university may have different policies than the legal system has in place.” Because Rizzo chose not to press legal charges, the decisions of the OSCCR board ultimately make no lasting impact on her attacker. He will never be labeled a sex offender or see jail time.
But students on campus such as senior Martha Pearson, who serves as the community liaison for Northeastern University’s Sexual Health, Advocacy, Resources and Education organization, want universities to see sexual assault as a student issue, as opposed to a business liability. “Administrators are not putting the student body at the forefront,” says Pearson. “They’re just dealing with it on paper instead of asking what survivors truly need.”
As for what survivors need, sometimes it’s the ability to choose whether to report their assault.
“I’m tired of being the girl who got raped. I don’t want to be the poster child for sexual assault,” says Helen, seeming to find her voice after telling an emotional story. Shrugging, she adds, “I don’t know how Emma Sulkowicz does it because it’s such a monumental responsibility. I’m eternally grateful she does, but no one should have to carry that alone.”
TITLE IX HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH SEXUAL ASSAULT.
In fact, most people connect this portion of the 1972 Educational Amendment with sports, as it requires schools to provide equal athletics programs to students, regardless of gender.
But the statute covers all forms of sexual discrimination in federally funded institutions, including the manner in which the school handles sexual assault cases. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled it “perfectly reasonable to maintain that academic advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes sex discrimination in education.” The case in question, Alexander v. Yale, was the first time Title IX had been used to establish that sexual harassment of women was a form of sexual discrimination.
That same year, the U.S. Department of Education was formed. The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights began investigating institutions that were reported for non-compliance with Title IX. And for the first time last May, the DOE published a formal list of colleges and universities under investigation for violating Title IX.
Fifty-five colleges and universities were included on the Office for Civil Rights’ list, and a recent update expanded the list to 86, with eight of those in the greater Boston area alone. But to Northeastern University Police Department’s Detective Meghan Caine, an investigation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“From what I know, the federal government is asking for stats, which is routine,” says Caine, a 7-year veteran of the department who specializes in sexual assault investigations. “As far as the complaint goes, we haven’t been found in violation but in a way I feel like it’s a good thing. It keeps us doing our job.”
Nadia Dawisha, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, agrees. Dawisha, a member of both the UNC Chapel Hill Sexual Harassment and Assault Task Force and the national task force, believes that although the label of investigation sounds extreme, it doesn’t actually mean much.
“I think that a lot of people assume that if a school has a Title IX investigation, it’s particularly egregious,” says Dawisha. “If I had a kid, I would probably feel better sending them to a school with a Title IX violation because it means they’re being held accountable.” She added however, that just because Title IX exists, doesn’t mean the law has any teeth.
Although currently, schools found in violation of Title IX are at risk of losing their federal funding, administrators at many universities don’t find this to be cause for major concern. UNC was under investigation before the university was sued, but Dawisha says not much has changed policy-wise.
However, she does believes that establishing a hefty fine for universities that are non-compliant is the first step to getting schools to actively seek to eradicate sexual assault. Many, including John Kelly, a senior at Tufts University in Medford, agree.
Last June, Kelly testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, calling on lawmakers to compel the Office for Civil Rights to continuously update and publish their list of schools under investigation. Kelly, who uses they/them pronouns, suggested during their opening statement that institutions be fined for non-compliance, speaking on their own experiences navigating Tufts’ student judicial process.
“We definitely had some big issues at Tufts. We had two administrators who were really interested in holding down a problematic view of sexual violence,” Kelly says, citing issues such as victim blaming and ignorance of sexual violence in the LGBTQ community. “Since then, those administrators have been fired or removed from those positions. But it’s definitely a trying experience to have administrators not believe you.”
Kelly explains that the Tufts administration faced criticism from students that ultimately led to a protest and an investigation by the DOE. That investigation began in 2011 and didn’t result in any conclusions until May of 2014. The university even publicly denied the government’s findings, releasing a statement that it “could not, in good faith, allow our community to believe that we are not in compliance with such an important law.”
But in a groundbreaking precedence, the DOE threatened to withhold Tufts’ federal funding if changes were not made to the disputed policies. A few days after the threat, the Boston Globe reported that Tufts’ president Anthony Monaco submitted the proposed policy changes.
“It was frustrating seeing the department pat the university on the back,” says Kelly in regards to praise from Catherine Lhamon, the DOE’s assistant secretary to civil rights, on the university’s eventual compliance with Title IX. “But I think they definitely found Tufts responsible, and held Tufts responsible in a way that’s never been done before.”
As a result, Tufts administrators began talks with students to develop sexual misconduct trainings for the community. Starting this past fall, students and faculty were required to partake in sexual-harassment prevention training as part of the Office of Equal Opportunity.
Other universities around the nation are making similar changes. The University of Connecticut announced that all incoming freshmen would be involved in sexual violence-prevention programs their first day on campus. This announcement followed the July settlement of a $1.3 million lawsuit brought against the university in November of 2013.
At Northeastern, students are not given mandated trainings, although the Violence Support, Intervention and Outreach Network does exist. ViSION is a “collaborative union between the administration and students to proactively end rape culture on campus”, says sophomore Alix Getreu. A member of ViSION, Getreu admits that the responsibilities of the university are murky, and that many students are confused as to what exactly ViSION does.
“There’s always enough showing face that you might come off as angry or confrontational if you try to call [the administration] out,” she says, noting that ViSION was not allowed to officially co-sponsor the November rally that Helen spoke at. “We’re all working within the parameters of a very limiting system and it’s not even clear where the parameters are coming from.”
Without university-sanctioned policies, there are limits to what university organizations such as ViSION can do. If something is considered too controversial or political, ViSION cannot take a stance. And the organization lacks a physical space for students to go to.
“There’s no human face to a human problem,” says NU SHARE’s Berit Lindell. Lindell, a junior who holds the position of communications director of NU SHARE, wants to see a revamp of the program. “It’s a mainly staff led group. They don’t have student voices,” she says, despite the seven students who work with ViSION.
But while the university hasn’t adopted an aggressive stance on sexual violence, Caine says she and others in the NUPD are doing their part to empower students.
“We take a lot of care to make sure the survivor is safe and gets medical treatment and counseling services before we take steps to file a report,” says Caine. “Under the laws in Massachusetts and the federal laws, we give survivors back some power. Unless it’s a threat to the community, [the case] only goes as far as the survivor wants.”
Amidst numerous allegations of universities mishandling reports of sexual assault—such as Rolling Stone’s controversial feature on UVA’s failure to investigate a reported gang rape in a popular fraternity—Caine’s dedication to Northeastern students is encouraging. A founding member of ViSION, Caine says that it started as a way for the university to close the gap between students and the school.
“We were afraid students had to jump through too many hoops,” she says. “We do have a lot of resources on campus and we’ve been consulted by other colleges and universities [on their programs].”
“DESPITE THE RHETORIC OF PROGRESS, RAPE CULTURE IS THRIVING,” says Katy Davis, the outreach coordinator for Northeastern University’s chapter of Strong Women, Strong Girls. “What does rape culture look like? It looks like one in four women being raped. It looks like one in three men saying they would rape if they could get away with it. It looks like only three out of a hundred rapists seeing a day in prison.”
The third-year international affairs and human services major is standing with the other co-sponsors of the Carry That Weight rally in early November, mere minutes before Helen will pick up the megaphone and identify herself as a survivor. Davis and others are demanding action from the university, but the students recognize their own role in ending sexual violence on campus.
Taking the megaphone, sophomore Elan Axelbank adds a male voice to the mix. “This is my issue as a man, because I don’t want to be part of that group,” says Axelbank, who originally began planning the event with fellow student Keely Mullen. “It’s not manly to rape, it’s not manly to be a creep. What is manly is to stick up for our sisters.”
The rally began with a march around campus before breaking into a series of speeches by organizers and an open-mic session for those who wished to speak. It was sponsored by multiple student organizations, including the Feminist Student Organization; Strong Women, Strong Girls; NU SHARE and the Progressive Students Alliance, and was yet another move by students to take control of a truly-student issue on campus.
About the rally, Axelbank said, “it would be a good way to empower girls—or guys—to come out about [sexual assault]. We don’t have to keep it inside.” And the rally did just that, as several students came forward to speak about their experiences, including graduate student Adrian, who asked for her last name not to be used.
“It felt good to say it and get it off my chest a little bit, because you spend so much time hiding it and keeping it a secret,” said the speech pathology graduate student after the event. Adrian, who did not know about the rally until she saw the gather while crossing the quad, was raped during her freshman year at Boston College. Even five years later, she still has yet to tell her family. “I don’t know why but that freaks me out. It was easier to tell a group of strangers than my sister. It shouldn’t be scary to tell them, but it is.”
Adrian added that she never reported her attack because she was drunk and felt partially responsible. Culturally norms made her feel as though it was her fault for not preventing her rape.
“The problem is that it’s not seen as horrible for some reason, it’s seen as just something the boys do,” she said. “Not ever having been a young man in America, it’s hard to say exactly, but it feels like girls come forward and say things and everyone looks for ways to make it their fault.”
Feelings of guilt following sexual assault are common, and many survivors believe their case is not important enough to warrant an investigation, or worse, that it will be dismissed as a case of “buyer’s remorse.”
“People still have this mindset that rape is sex gone wrong,” says Alix Getreu, explaining that until people move from the dichotomy of rape as either precarious sex or a brutally violent act, it will continue to be a cultural issue. “And I don’t think the burden should be on Northeastern to get rid of it.”
Students play a huge role in the way sexual assault is handled at Northeastern University, despite the shadowy administrative figure that is often blamed in cases of institutional misconduct. At some schools, deans, professors and other faculty members staff disciplinary boards.
But the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution chose to put the process in the hands of students, and so the student conduct boards are entirely comprised of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students.
Third-year Chelsea Elder has been on the conduct boards since the spring semester of her freshman year, and says that the panelists are hand-selected following an application process that is intended to balance bias and outlook.
Currently there is a board specifically examining Northeastern’s sexual assault policy to ensure it’s in compliance with federal guidelines, although Elder is not on it. But where Elder sees her role on the board as an opportunity to take action in her community, UNC’s Nadia Dawisha sees student involvement on disciplinary boards as a conflict of interest.
“Get rid of Title IX coordinators, get rid of sexual assault panels, and use that money to build an independent consortium of people. Experts, criminal investigators, nurses, like one-stop shopping,” says Dawisha, adding that none of the panelists should be on the school’s payroll. She believes that student-panelists show bias and make survivors more hesitant to report their assaults.
Getreu also criticizes the student conduct board, saying that survivors go through OSCCR seeking justice, but wanting to avoid the secondary trauma of the legal system. “What they don’t tell you is that they’re making many decisions for you,” she says. “It winds up being just as, if not more traumatic.”
But Caine says that the university goes to great lengths to protect survivors who decide to bring their cases to OSCCR. Although the survivor is in the same room with the accused, a curtain separates them and a police officer is with them at all times.
“The case is heard in front of a board that is, again, trained in sexual assault cases,” says Caine. “They make sure if there’s a break, the survivor and the offender don’t see each other.”
While the trial itself is a vital part of the system, Caine believes the real strength in the movement lies in the student organizations. Although the Annual Information Report for the 2014-‘15 academic year states that in 2013, 13 forcible sexual offenses were reported to the NUPD—an increase from 2012, when only four cases were reported—Caine believes the campus is becoming safer.
“More people are willing to come forward and talk about it, which is good to see,” says Caine. “In my opinion, it probably has to do with education and more exposure in the media.”
The education Caine speaks of is largely the work of student groups such as NU SHARE. The group organizes training events covering topics of bystander intervention and consent workshops, and brings in outside organizations such as the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to run workshops for students. But Alix Getreu wants to see more.
“We need a safe space, better access to the ViSION network, a clear outline of who is and isn’t a mandated reporter,” Getreu says, adding a peer counseling program to her list of ideas.
To Caine, these suggestions are vital for change. Knowledge is power in Caine’s eyes, and the misinformation in the community is the biggest challenge she faces.
“I think our student groups on campus do a great job [educating students],” she says. “Everybody wants the same outcome, for students to be treated fairly and the situation to be handled as it should be handled. And I think that’s a good thing.”
She adds that students have sought to truly take on more of a role in campus safety. Getreu agrees, pointing out student groups that are working to educate their peers on their reproductive rights and to increase communication between students and the university’s administration.
“It’s a social problem that is deeply, culturally ingrained in all of us,” says Getreu. “We have to change the culture at Northeastern.”