Students who are raped turn to colleges for justice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Increasingly, in Maryland and elsewhere across the nation, university women who say they have been sexually assaulted or raped by someone they know are looking to the colleges for justice instead of to the criminal courts.

"It's the beginning of a wave," said Andrea Parrot, a Cornell University professor and one of the pioneers in the study of sexual assault on college campuses.

A huge gap still exists between the number of coeds who claim to have been raped by fellow students -- one in four, according to the only national survey -- and the scattering of charges being made. But the pressure of dealing with such serious charges is shaking up college administrations and campus judicial systems more accustomed to dealing with rowdy behavior, cheating and theft.

Many schools have not responded well.

Now, sued in court by angry students and attacked in public forums for mishandling their complaints, colleges by the hundreds are revising their disciplinary systems and rules of conduct, and are otherwise scrambling to change their ways.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa last week, the vice president of student affairs resigned and the president, Frank Borkowski, came under intense fire following revelations that the administration had improperly bypassed the student disciplinary process in the case of a former star basketball player accused of rape.

The vice president, Dan Wolbolt, also an athletic booster club member, personally took over the case in 1989 as the team headed to tournament play, and canceled a suspension when the woman withdrew her complaint -- under pressure, she says, from other players.

After four other female students filed complaints of assault or harassment against the same player, the university revoked his athletic scholarship, he left school, and the regents ordered an -- investigation.

Dr. Borkowski, under attack from the public and government officials, apologized profusely to angry regents last week, ordered university attorneys to begin contacting victims with offers of help and announced reforms, including a system of victim advocates.

Still, the regents moved his annual August evaluation to next month.

Tomorrow, at the University of Maryland at College Park, a case that has spilled controversy across the campus comes back before a board of student judges, the first of a series of confidential hearings scheduled in the next three weeks by university officials now under attack by both the female accuser and the lawyer for the men accused.

The case stems from the complaint of Sharon Williams, who charged that she was sexually assaulted by three fraternity brothers in a dormitory room at the university in October 1990, when she was an 18-year-old freshman visiting from Mary Washington College in Virginia. The men deny it.

Ms. Williams entrusted her complaint to the campus judicial system, a confidential process, because she thought it would be faster, fairer, more private and less traumatic than the criminal courts, she said.

The case took almost an entire academic year to be heard. The student judges decided that Ms. Williams was telling the truth and that the men should be expelled.

But when that ruling was challenged by a lawyer for the men and the university decided to throw out the finding and repeat the process, Ms. Williams was so angered she decided to make her story public.

"I am infuriated," she said. "It's over a year afterward and those boys are still in school. It stinks."

Colleges as courts

There are no comprehensive national figures on how many women report rapes or sexual assaults on college campuses, or on the outcome of their charges.

But around the nation, researchers studying the issue say universities are becoming the court of preference for women who seek justice for wrongs that are little understood by the public: sexual assault by an acquaintance.

Colleges historically have judged the behavior of their students, usually determining the truth about infractions of the student code through student hearings, a process unencumbered by the rules of evidence or high standards of proof that govern trials in the criminal courts.

But as those systems have begun to be challenged by the more serious issue of sexual assault, a number of schools have found themselves sued by female students who felt badly treated by the system.

In Maryland last year, complaints led to changes in the way such cases are handled on at least two public university campuses.

At Frostburg State University, a man the judiciary system said should be expelled for sexual assault challenged the finding. He argued that the university had sided with the victim by providing her with an advocate at the hearing.

When the university canceled the expulsion after consulting the state attorney general's office on its procedures, the woman filed charges in criminal court, and a judge directed the accused man to stay away from the campus. But by then, he had withdrawn.

Frostburg now provides advocates for both sides in an assault case.

"One of our concerns was that we had done so much to support the victim, and there was a question of balance," said Thomas L. Bowling, associate vice president for student and educational services.

In an even more confused case at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, three women complained to university officials that the campus had failed to protect them from a student who they said had sexually assaulted two of them -- and who then followed them around campus with a knife sheath and handcuffs hanging from his belt.

One of the women complained to a community newspaper after she saw the man still on campus, but the administration wouldn't tell her the result of a hearing in the case.

The man, an honors student who was expelled two weeks before graduation last May, had been permitted to stay on campus while he appealed the expulsion order, university officials acknowledged.

But the officials said the case was complicated by the fact that the women hadn't reported the charges of rape and sexual harassment until more than a year after they allegedly occurred.

"We acted as quickly as we could," university spokeswoman Louise White said.

She said the accused student was removed immediately from the residence hall and banned from all other areas of resident life, including dining halls, and one victim was offered a police escort.

But after so much time, the state declined to prosecute.

Since then, UMBC officials say they have revised the student code of conduct to specifically prohibit sexual assaults. The university says it now routinely provides victims with student advocates and tells them the outcome of internal disciplinary charges.

A model system at Towson

In contrast, Towson State University immediately suspends a student who seems violent, and convenes a disciplinary hearing within 48 hours. An appeal takes up to four days. Immediate suspension is common in cases of acquaintance rape when the victim feels at all threatened, officials said.

The system was set up 15 years ago because the slow criminal court process meant "it was quite possible to have a rapist on campus for six months," said Dorothy Siegel, vice president for student services and founder of the university's nationally known Campus Violence Prevention Center. "The purpose of the internal system is to protect the campus immediately."

Towson was one of the first universities to make special rules for dealing with student rape, a responsibility that some educators think schools should bear.

"I don't think universities should ever be a substitute [for criminal courts], but I do think that because of this different standard of proof . . . universities can fill gaps in the law of date rape, law that hasn't developed enough in the criminal system," said Sarah E. Wald, dean of students at Harvard Law School and a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts.

Although some state prosecutors are willing to take such cases, she says, juries still are not willing to convict. "They say, 'She should never have gone to his room in the first place.' We saw that some in the [William Kennedy] Smith case," Ms. Wald said.

Some figures suggest that colleges actually handle and punish a higher percentage of rapes reported on their campuses than the criminal court system.

In a survey of more than 400 colleges and universities conducted in 1990, the Campus Violence Prevention Center at Towson found that fewer than one in five rapes were prosecuted in criminal courts. But more than one-third -- 36 percent -- resulted in campus penalties. Most of the 215 rapes reported on those campuses -- 61.5 percent -- were classified as date or acquaintance rapes.

A few colleges don't hear such cases, feeling that sexual assaults have become "both so legally complicated and so fraught with intense emotion and politics that they can only be handled adequately in a courtroom setting," said Gary Pavela, a nationally known expert in laws affecting universities and director of campus judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park.

But the majority of universities, he said, believe they have a responsibility to respond to female students who make such claims, particularly "given their concerns about the criminal justice system," he said.

A sense of obligation

"There's a new sense of obligation on the part of universities to handle sexual assault cases properly," said Carol Bohmer, a Cornell University lawyer and professor who is writing a book on such lawsuits.

Given jury acquittals in cases such as the one against William Kennedy Smith in Florida, Ms. Bohmer and other experts say more women may turn to confidential university hearings to resolve their claims if they are encouraged to do so.

And they point to a case at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y., last fall as an example of how college systems can respond to victims.

A woman there had accused six men of raping her in an off-campus fraternity house. When a jury acquitted the defendants after a public trial, the university held its own hearing, found that the men had violated the code of conduct, and expelled them.

Campus incidence

Although growing, the number of reports of such assaults on college campuses remains small. At College Park in 1990, when Sharon Williams says she was assaulted, for instance, official police statistics listed no rapes or sexual assaults as defined in criminal law.

But the statistics, which include only cases that result in police charges, are deceptive. Health center and counseling officials say they treat far more victims -- at least one a month at College Park's health center -- than the numbers represented in police reports.

And in a survey of 800 undergraduates at College Park in 1990, 49 percent of the women said they had experienced some form of sexual victimization, ranging from sexual contact to rape, on campus. Among men surveyed by Traci A. Martin for her master's thesis, 18 percent admitted they had victimized a woman sexually.

She used the same methodology developed for a 1987 nationwide study of 6,100 students on 32 campuses by Mary P. Koss, then of Ohio State University, for the National Institutes of Mental Health. It found that one in four women were the victims of rape that, because of the use of force or other circumstances, would qualify as a felony under criminal law. But less than 5 percent reported the incidents.

The results were popularized in a 1988 book, "I Never Called It Rape," a description of acquaintance rape by Philadelphia author Robin Warshaw.

Only since then have universities, including College Park, begun major efforts to educate students about rape, an effort that is expected to increase the reporting of assaults.

Already, says Mary Roark, professor of counseling at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, "it's definitely on the increase." The University of Rochester, for instance, has handled eight cases since developing a model program in 1986, compared with none in previous years.

Sharon Williams is the only woman in three years to press a claim of sexual assault at College Park, and the university has thrown out the student board's decision reached in her case last summer and scheduled it to be reheard in closed sessions beginning tomorrow.

Mr. Pavela, a lawyer and the judicial program director for the school, defended that decision as fair, saying he had to consider if the accused students were adult enough to represent themselves adequately. He decided they were not.

"Universities almost need a new category of adulthood," he said. "Pre-adulthood."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
55°