Confronting Sexual Assault

A look at how the administration and students are taking on the issue

At the culmination of Duke’s Take Back the Night march in 2005, nearly 150 people gathered on the steps of Duke Chapel to share stories about sexual assault. Such community-wide, public events were important, one participant noted, “because sexual assault is a silent crime.”

Nearly a decade later, sexual-assault survivors and their supporters aren’t staying silent about what takes place on their college campuses. Nationally, they have launched grassroots networks and social-media campaigns such as Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus. The topic has sparked intense interest from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and the White House has created a Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault with the charge to help “stop sexual assault, support those who have survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice.” And the Department of Education’s office for Civil Rights is investigating dozens of Title IX complaints filed by students against their college or university for allegedly mishandling cases.

Public perception about campus sexual assaults runs the gamut. There are those who believe addressing the problem is long overdue and that campuses have largely ignored or been hostile toward students who have been assaulted. There are those, too, who question national statistics about the prevalence of sexual assault (one in five women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), who argue that women—because it’s mostly women— report being raped or sexually assaulted because they regret or can’t remember drunken hook-ups, and that innocent men are being swept up in “rape hysteria.” Men accused of rape or sexual assault who are found not responsible are beginning to countersue universities for depriving them of due-process rights (their ranks include a former Duke student).

Many observers also question why, since rape is a crime, universities are conducting investigations that seemingly should be the sole purview of law enforcement. (The short answer? They’re legally obligated to do so.)

While some universities have only recently begun to pay attention to the evolving political, legal, and sociocultural implications of campus sexual assault, Duke has been working for years to design and enhance a multifaceted approach to a complex issue.

Here’s an in-depth look at how the administration and students are taking on the issue.

Planning a strategy

This past summer, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, bipartisan legislation that would mandate additional resources for survivors, training for on-campus personnel, and the administration of annual student surveys about sexual violence. It would increase campus accountability and coordination with local law enforcement. It also recommends harsher penalties for violations of the Clery Act ($150,000 per violation, up from $35,000).

At a press conference announcing the legislation, McCaskill said, “There’s two ways to handle it: You can circle the wagons, deny it, and fight it. Or you can join forces, and say, ‘Thank you for the heads-up; we need help in this area.’”

Duke’s general counsel, Pamela Bernard, is among a group of higher-education Title IX experts, administrators, and lawyers who have been advising McCaskill’s staff, members of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and the Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights.

“One of the first things we’ve said is, ‘Kudos to you for tackling this difficult issue,’” says Bernard. “We all want to reduce sexual violence and sexual misconduct on our campuses. At the same time, we’re working to help people outside of higher education understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Institutions are large and small, public and private, commuter and residential in nature.”

She notes that owing to differences in institutional means, some schools are hard pressed to implement and adhere to all these regulations quickly. “Duke has been fortunate that it’s been able to devote the resources to addressing the issue, and it’s had leadership that made this a priority, even before it became a topic of national attention.”

Bernard says that she and her higher-education colleagues also encourage government regulators to recognize the importance of addressing myriad factors that contribute to the problem. “When sexual assaults occur, we need to have fair systems in place to make sure that students are accountable for their behaviors,” she says. “Equally important is protecting the rights of those accused of sexual misconduct. But far better would be for these behaviors not to happen in the first place. Many of us feel that the greatest return on investment would be in the area of prevention, education, and cultural transformation. We’re educators; that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Weighing options

In the first few weeks of the fall semester, the Women's Center experienced a significant jump in the number of students seeking information about sexual misconduct and assault. Some of these were students who had been following the national discussions about campus sexual assault and wanted to talk about something that had happened to them months or years earlier. Others were students who wanted to learn what their options were for reporting a violation of the sexual-misconduct policy.

Amy Cleckler, the Women’s Center’s gender-violence prevention and services coordinator, says the confidential nature of those conversations allows students to understand their options without making an official report. (To encourage reporting, Women’s Center staff, clergy, medical providers, and CAPS therapists are excluded by policy from having to report sexual assaults. All other Duke employees who learn about a sexual assault are expected to report it to the Office of Student Conduct.)

“Nearly all of the students who come to us are really struggling with whether or not to report what happened to them,” she says. In 2013-14, 189 students made appointments to talk about an incident of sexual misconduct they’d experienced (some of these happened in high school or away from Duke), but only a handful decided to file an official university or police report.

Associate Dean of Students Stephen Bryan, who oversees Duke’s Office of Student Conduct, says his office does receive reports that a student has assaulted more than one person and/or that an assault took place as a result of a premeditated plan to target someone. While such serial predatory behavior is rare, there are individuals on Duke’s campus (and all campuses) who are situational opportunists, taking advantage of someone who is falling-down drunk or passed out.

Bryan says that a more typical pattern involves alcohol and casual sex. Students drink before they go out, head to a party or a bar where they continue drinking, get together with someone they know well or in passing, go back to a dorm or apartment. And some kind of sexual encounter takes place. In these situations, the lack of clarity about expectations and boundaries can lead to misunderstandings or worse. In the majority of sexual misconduct cases reported to Bryan’s office, the parties involved generally agree about the particulars of what took place, but disagree about whether everything was consensual.

“One student told me he was worried he had done something wrong when the woman told him the next morning that she couldn’t remember what happened,” says Bryan. “There have also been a number of cases where the people involved had had no sexual experience and didn’t know how to negotiate a conversation about intimate activity.”

When Bryan’s office receives a report of a sexual-misconduct incident, he conducts a preliminary review of each case and talks to students involved (both accused and accuser). When a case warrants additional investigation, he enlists the services of an independent investigator. (Duke is among a handful of institutions that have started using outside, independent investigators.) This person, who requested anonymity owing to the sensitive nature of the cases she sees, collects information from the person filing the complaint, the person accused of misconduct, and any witnesses. “Every case is different, because the nature of the relationship and students’ ability to give consent varies. Most of the cases I see are in that gray area where you have two people who are saying completely different things. And sometimes both of their stories are plausible, and there is no physical evidence. My job is to be impartial in gathering facts. I'm not a human lie-detector, so I have to look for evidence and clues about whether or not someone is telling the truth, such as in discrepancies in their story.”

If there’s sufficient evidence to pursue a complaint, the Office of Student Conduct may resolve it administratively if a respondent accepts responsibility and the sanction, or it may go to a disciplinary panel hearing. When considering cases, the panel weighs a “preponderance of evidence” standard. If a student is found responsible, the panel’s decision must be unanimous for sanctions to be considered. If the panel decides that the accused student’s behavior warrants expulsion (the sanction of first consideration) or suspension, the vote for imposing that sanction also must be unanimous.

Six cases were investigated last year, and five went to a disciplinary hearing (one is still pending resolution). Three students were found not responsible; of the two found responsible, one was suspended and one was expelled.

Intervention education

In the wood-paneled meeting room of the Women’s Center, a couple dozen students share some of the misperceptions about rape and sexual assault that they hear.

“Did you see what she was wearing? She was asking for it.”

“Men can’t control themselves sexually.”

“She went back to his room—what did she expect?”

“He didn’t mean to; he was just drunk.”

“She’s lying.”

It’s the first night of a two-part bystander-intervention workshop called P.A.C.T. (Prevent. Act. Challenge. Teach.). The students who have signed up for the training represent a cross-section of the undergraduate population—men and women, Greeks and independents, freshmen and seniors. They are here voluntarily to learn how to handle situations that arise with unfortunate regularity on college campuses.

As the trained student facilitators guide the conversation through the interactive, two-and a-half-hour session, participants share personal encounters that caught them off guard. “I overheard this guy talking loudly about how slutty a girl was, and it was just so offensive,” says one. “I was pretty upset, and when I confronted him, I said something like, ‘Do you want to get laid anytime soon, because you won’t with that attitude.’ But I really wish I’d had a better way to handle that.”

Based on a curriculum designed at the University of New Hampshire, P.A.C.T. tackles topics ranging from rape, stalking, and intimate-partner violence to intervention techniques and supporting a friend who has been assaulted. “Most of us will not be perpetrators or victims, but nearly all of us will witness inappropriate or dangerous behaviors,” says Amy Cleckler, the Women’s Center’s gender-violence prevention and services coordinator. “P.A.C.T. approaches these issues as a community problem that requires a community approach to solve.”

During his sophomore year, Kyle Moran, now a senior, and his varsity track-and-field teammates took part in P.A.C.T. training. He’s since become a trained facilitator. He says that while P.A.C.T. is primarily a bystander-intervention program, it also helps encourage students to talk frankly and honestly about sex.

“One of the things we talk about in P.A.C.T. is healthy relationships and the importance of communication. Talking about sex doesn’t have to be this big, awkward thing. We want to challenge people to overcome any discomfort they have talking about it. It seems strange to think that people are engaging in behaviors they aren’t comfortable taking about.”

Allie Huttler, also a senior, echoes Moran’s observations about her peers’ discomfort talking about sex. As the daughter of an ob-gyn, she found that many of her friends looked to her for information and advice, “asking questions I didn’t know how to answer.”

The wellness advocate for her sorority, Huttler reached out to Sheila Broderick, a clinical social worker and the Women’s Center gender-violence intervention services coordinator, to help facilitate a conversation about sex and sexuality. “One of the things we talked about was the importance of the pre-sex conversation and being clear about what you do or don’t want or what you are or aren’t looking for,” says Huttler. “Some girls said they didn’t feel comfortable asking about STDs or asking the guy to wear a condom, but Sheila helped us realize that we have the power in those situations, and it’s our right and responsibility to ask those questions.”

Broderick encourages students to understand what their own values and comfort levels are when it comes to sex and sexuality, whether that’s remaining a virgin (as many Duke students are), practicing celibacy, being in a committed monogamous relationship, or engaging in casual sex. She says miscommunication or lack of communication about sex isn’t surprising, given young people’s limited experience and the mixed messages they receive from parents, peers, and cultural influences.“I understand that it can be very uncomfortable, but I would encourage parents to talk to their children about sex and sexual decision-making before they go off to college. If you’re only communicating that sex is dangerous or off-limits, then they’ll be scared and anxious about sex, which will make them anxious to talk about it. And that’s not healthy.”