Many Universities Don't Want You To Know How They Punish Sexual Assault


More than a dozen colleges and universities, when asked by The Huffington Post, declined to reveal how they've punished their students for committing sexual assault.

HuffPost requested information from 50 schools about the sanctions imposed on students found responsible by the colleges for sexual assault. A Huffington Post analysis of information provided by the nearly three dozen schools that did provide data on sexual violence cases showed fewer than a third of students found guilty of sexual assault are expelled.

Ten institutions, however, declined to provide any information, four did not respond to multiple requests and several others provided incomplete information.

Several cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as preventing them from disclosing such information. However, FERPA does not block an institution from providing these numbers. U.S. Department of Education guidance allows schools to release information, including specific sanctions, if a student is "an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense" who violated university policy. While FERPA permits this disclosure, it does not require it, and a college is free to withhold such information.

"Defenders of the campus disciplinary process have always pointed fingers at the criminal process and said, 'Look how bad the criminal process is,' but they've never actually disclosed any numbers of the efficacy of the campus process," said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center.

But that may soon change.

Legislation, known as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, introduced on July 30 by a bipartisan group of senators would require colleges and universities to disclose the number of sexual assaults adjudicated and their outcomes. Staffers who worked on the bill say it was born out of Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.) survey of colleges, which found that many schools use adjudication processes that do not comply with best practices, such as imposing a unusually high standard of proof, and fail to educate judicial panels about "rape myths," such as the myth that stranger assaults are a majority of sexual violence cases. Advocates argue that requiring transparency from universities could shed light on whether schools are properly handling rape investigations.

"I think that's a good idea, as long as it's current," said Scott Coffina, a former deputy White House counsel who was recently hired to advise the University of Connecticut on sexual violence cases. "I'm a lot more supportive of that than merely identifying schools that are under investigation."

Survivor advocates believe that the prospect of releasing such data has colleges concerned about a backlash should it seem they are doling out light punishments for sexual violence.

Colleges currently have no incentive to publicize anything about sexual violence on campus, Goldstein said, because "schools don't want their name to appear next to anything more sinister than a candy cane."

"I know what they're so afraid of," Goldstein continued. "Most of the time a school doesn't find people responsible at all, and when it does, their sanction is between walking the street as a free man or write a 500-word essay about why you shouldn't rape so much."

Many administrators, however, cited the concern that, without context, it's difficult to present a real picture of how various offenses are sanctioned.

"These cases are so fact-specific, I don't think those statistics in and of themselves are helpful to the reader," said Amy Forester, Bucknell University's general counsel and member of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. "If you see someone was suspended for six semesters, I don't know what that tells you if you don't understand the underlying circumstances there."

The Association for Student Conduct Administration, which advises schools to be "educational" and "not punitive" in adjudicating sexual assault cases, is also hesitant to support disclosure as to the outcomes of such cases. Instead, ASCA President-elect Laura Bennett suggested that it would be beneficial for colleges to outline scenarios for when a certain punishment would apply. Yale University created such scenarios last year, but only after students raised concerns about a lack of severe punishments for "nonconsensual sex."

"That's really helpful for students to see, 'OK, this is where the community is at with this,'" Bennett said.

Bennett suggested it would be best for colleges and universities to provide upfront information about how they sanction students in cases of sexual assault. Otherwise, she explained, "People tend to fill in the gaps and make stuff up when they don't know what's going on."

The schools listed below were among the 50 from which The Huffington Post requested data on sexual assault cases. Colleges and universities were chosen to represent a geographical variety, both public and private, and include elite schools and others that are not household names. HuffPost obtained data from 32 institutions, which collectively represent 705,000 students. The comments below are from the schools that declined to provide that information.

University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame declined to release any information.

American University, Baylor University and Bowdoin College

Officials with American University, Baylor University and Bowdoin College did not respond to multiple requests for data.

University of Virginia

The University of Virginia confirmed that since 1998, 13 students were found guilty of sexual assault, but denied a request for a breakdown of the data. The university directed HuffPost to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request for disciplinary action taken against students for sexual assault since 1998, but then denied it, saying no document contained that information. The university denied another FOIA request for any sanctioning letter or letter of findings in cases where a student was found responsible for sexual assault, saying providing such information would violate federal privacy law.

UVA spokesman McGregor McCance agreed that a FOIA request was not needed to supply the information, but that the university would not release any additional information about how sexual assaults were punished.

University of Montana

The University of Montana declined HuffPost's request, instead referring to its annual Clery report of how many assaults were officially reported to the school, and noting, "We don't collect statistics in the manner that you've requested."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT noted it's currently reviewing how the university handles sexual violence. It provided a pre-existing breakdown of sanctions against students imposed by the Committee on Discipline, but it lumps all sexual misconduct cases in with academic misconduct cases, and does not list separately how students were punished for sexual assault.

HuffPost asked the university to list punishments for students found responsible for sexual misconduct, but MIT declined.

"I can't break this information out for you, but I can tell you that as part of the chancellor's overall review of sexual-assault issues at MIT, we will be considering changes to the way we report publicly," said Nate Nickerson, associate vice president for communications.

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst

UMass Amherst did not initially respond to a request for the data, then later said the request had been forwarded to the student affairs office. HuffPost's followup requests since May 20 have not been returned.

University of Oregon

The University of Oregon provided a snapshot of how sexual assault cases were handled in one academic year, but declined to provide additional information. The school directed HuffPost to submit an open records request. In response, it provided a document detailing all misconduct cases, ranging from plagiarism and theft to rape, with aggregate totals of how many students were disciplined, suspended or expelled. When HuffPost followed up, the university clarified that because no pre-existing document specifically tracked sexual misconduct cases over the past several years, the university would not release this information.

University of California-Berkeley

UC-Berkeley provided information on sanctions for cases of sexual misconduct between 2008 and 2013, and indicated that nine students were found responsible and suspended or dismissed during that period. When HuffPost requested the university specify how many were suspended, dismissed or expelled, UC-Berkeley declined, citing FERPA and university policy. "When the numbers are so small that they can be identifying (meaning someone can use that data and link it with other information to identify the case) we cannot disclose that information," spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said.

HuffPost noted that the university had previously confirmed that six students were suspended for sexual misconduct between 2011 and 2013, and the question was how many of the remaining three were expelled between 2008 and 2010.

The university said it believes "such disclosure could lead to identification of students who were part of the disciplinary process. The data provided to you is grouped in a way to provide information about case outcomes without violating FERPA or UC policy." UC-Berkeley noted that while FERPA may permit an institution to share information about how many students are expelled, it does not require it, and UC system policy "recognizes the privacy of these records and does not permit us to disclose them."

Princeton University

Princeton declined to provide any information that wasn't already public as part of its annual Clery report listing.

Tufts University

Tufts declined to provide information about how sexual assault cases were adjudicated because the school is deliberating on how to disclose the data to the community. "We are currently exploring how best to provide statistics regarding sexual misconduct on campus while balancing the confidentiality that is expected by our community," Tufts spokeswoman Kimberly Thurler said in a statement. "As result, at this time we are not able to provide information relative to complaints received and adjudicated by our Office of Equal Opportunity. We are also unable to discuss individual cases given the confidential issues involved."

Northwestern University

Northwestern declined to provide information on how students are adjudicated for sexual misconduct. Instead, the university referred to a report that indicated there were five cases of sexual assault in 2012-13. However, the report does not provide any further information as to the number of students who were found responsible for sexual assault, or what sanctions were imposed, if any, but only the total aggregate number of punishments for all cases ranging from cheating to rape. No one was expelled during 2012-13.

Sewanee: The University of the South

Sewanee told HuffPost that the staff members needed to sort through the data were unavailable. It also noted it had revamped its sexual misconduct adjudication process in ways that would make it difficult to compare the two most recent years to prior years.

University of Chicago

The university referred to its annual Clery reports and daily police crime log, though those sources do not provide information on student sanctions for sexual assault. University spokesman Steve Kloehn, however, said the school "does not report on disciplinary matters the way some" other institutions do, and that he was not in a position to obtain the requested data. The University of Chicago also "declined to comment on any individual disciplinary matters."

Rice University

Rice said it was unable to provide information because it is in the process of considering new options for disclosing sexual misconduct adjudication data.

Rice spokesman Jeff Falk said in a statement: "Rice is a small institution with about 3,800 undergraduate students. We are in the process of establishing a working group, including representatives of the student body, to review our policies, procedures and outreach on sexual assault, including analyzing data on sexual assault and developing the best way to add this information to the educational materials offered to all of our students, faculty and staff. That report will differentiate between cases of sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct. We do not have this report available at this time, and will use what we learn to ensure that our education, prevention and adjudication programs are as effective as possible."

University of Missouri

Christian Basi, Interim Director of the university's News Bureau:

"The number of adjudications for sexual assault at the University of Missouri during calendar years 2012, 2013 and 2014 are 5, 4 and 4, respectively. Because of the small number of such adjudications over the applicable time period, I respectfully decline to provide a further breakdown as to the disposition in each category in order to protect the student privacy rights under the provisions of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)."

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