Sexual Assault in Universities: Those Excluded From the Dialogue

Within the last two years, sexual assault on college campuses has made the national spotlight. Currently, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education is investigating 208 cases of civil rights violations from the handling of sexual assault reports at 167 colleges. That number is likely to rise, as college students and parents become more knowledgeable of their rights and begin to unearth the troubling ways in which college administrators deal with reports of sexual assault. Already, our nation has experienced a rising wave of activism to combat sexual assault on college campuses--we have seen initiatives from the White House, student movements, and a number of documentaries. These campaigns have uncovered realities too-long hidden from public knowledge and caused universities to examine their prevention and intervention policies surrounding dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Missing from the national discourse, nonetheless, is a more nuanced and culturally--as well as population--specific understanding of how these crimes impact diverse students and communities. As a result, there exists a critical gap in the way that policies, practices and strategies are developed and implemented to prevent and address dating violence, sexual assault and stalking on campus. Yet, the groundswell of interest in campus violence prevention and accountability for both offenders and institutions provides an exciting opportunity to engage in broader, more informed discourse.

The 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics' Campus Climate Survey revealed critical information about the state of domestic and sexual violence and stalking on campus. While this study showed the importance of engaging campuses and students early on, it was unable to reflect the realities of students from diverse backgrounds (race, ethnicity, gender identity, etc.). The information in the study is incredibly valuable in revealing some of the landscape of campus crimes of violence, but the limitations of this research demonstrate a need to continue to document and explore the realities of students from culturally specific backgrounds. To provide a deeper understanding of the complexities of this issue in diverse communities, the following offers a brief examination of the realities and concerns of traditionally overlooked diverse student populations:

Undocumented students are often more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual assault because perpetrators use the lack of legal status as a tool to exert power and control over their victims. Undocumented students often fear retaliation that could implicate their families as well as themselves. In some cases, college administrators might even warn undocumented students against reporting crimes. These complex realities shed light on the need for college administrators and first responders to better understand the needs of undocumented students and provide proper support systems, including information around U-visas and other legal relief available for undocumented victims of sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking.

Students of color--Many students of color--as well as international students--receive financial aid in the form of fellowships, scholarships, and loans from universities. Often, these students are afraid to pursue prosecution of their assailants because they fear the universities will take away their scholarships. Especially in contexts of over-policing or hyper vigilance of communities of color, the consequences of reporting are too far reaching, and there is a need for universities to understand and respond to the realities and fears of students of color.

Language access is an important component of providing accessible services to students who have experienced stalking, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence. Not all students--domestic and international--have full English proficiency, and research indicates that victims of trauma need to process and understand what happened to them in their own language. For many victims, receiving services in their own language is critical to dealing with the aftermath of trauma. When colleges and universities that receive federal funding do not provide meaningful access to services in a survivor's language, they can be in violation of federal laws and further alienate students most at risk.

LGBTQ students--The 2016 BJS Campus Climate Survey also indicated that the LGBTQ population experiences intimate partner violence at similar, yet slightly higher rates as the general population. It must also be highlighted that LGBTQ students face a number of institutional and societal barriers when dealing with intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Often, university police officers and staff are not sufficiently trained on the dynamics of dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking among LGBTQ students. Also, depending on the context (geography, religious background of college, etc), LGBTQ students can feel excluded from the community and even ostracized by peers. This speaks volumes to how social context impacts reporting and help-seeking behaviors. Providing meaningful access and opportunity for reporting go hand-in-hand with creating safety on campus.

Community colleges serve vastly diverse populations, arguably more so than many four-year colleges. Of the total undergraduate population in the United States, 45% are enrolled in community colleges and the majority of undergraduates of color are enrolled in community colleges (57% Hispanic, 52% Black, 62% Native American, 43% Asian-Pacific Islanders enrolled in undergraduate institutions). The need for community colleges to build capacity around culturally specific responses to intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual violence is of paramount urgency. Additionally, many--if not most--undocumented students enrolled in college attend community college, which highlights the immediate need to provide capacity building to community colleges in working with undocumented students.

Additionally, most community colleges do not have a residential campus and most students (62%) are part-time students who otherwise hold other responsibilities including maintaining a job and balancing school with family needs. For students experiencing workplace violence or domestic violence while attending school, community colleges ought to integrate intervention practices that provide help and support because violence that takes place outside of school premises directly impacts student performance and well-being.

Campuses in rural areas benefit from fewer community resources--culturally specific or otherwise--and often times do not have the resources to properly respond to the many needs of survivors. Moreover, students of color often feel alienation in rural communities that might be predominantly homogeneous, and given the small social circles in rural colleges, LGBTQ students and students of color might not feel comfortable to report crimes to college administration or local law enforcement.

Graduate students (master's or doctorate degrees, specifically) often work with a select number of faculty members (sometimes even just one or two) who exert tremendous power over students' course of study, graduation, and professional careers. For example, when graduate students' careers depend on a letter of recommendation from their graduate school advisor or whose continuous funding hinges on faculty review and support, we face a power imbalance that results in increased vulnerability, particularly if the student's presence in the country also depends on their studies.

In addition to the breadth of issues and experiences that college administrators must address when dealing with sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking in college campuses, we must also remain vigilant to policies that that undermine victim safety. A practice that has been hotly debated recently, for instance, is legislation that would result in the conflation of law enforcement and school responsibilities in the investigation and adjudication of crimes involving dating violence, sexual assault and stalking on campus. Schools have the responsibility to ensure its constituents' civil rights and ensure that violations to their code of conduct or ethics are investigated. Law enforcement also has a responsibility to investigate cases of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and stalking, but the scope of what it can investigate might not necessarily overlap with what a school's policies direct the school to do. This is why victims might seek redress from a school's administration that they could not get through law enforcement. Any legislation that would mandate the involvement of law enforcement in the process of reporting these on campus has the potential of keeping immigrant, LGBTQ and students of color silent, especially in the context of historically poor investigative practices, lack of accountability and enforcement of punishment for offenders, potential immigration consequences for international students and their families and policing practices that disproportionately impact for communities of color.

The advocacy community recognizes that requiring victims to report violence to law enforcement can compromise victim safety and recovery, and as such, many experts warn against this kind of practice. Recent legislative efforts to conflate the responsibilities of college campuses and the duties of law enforcement highlight a lack of awareness of how certain practices can impart unintended consequences for specific communities. However, underserved and marginalized communities continue to be excluded from meaningful planning and implementation of projects in such a way that would bring these realities to light.

As the national advocacy effort to change campus culture, best practices, and policies to address sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking in college campuses increases, both policy makers and institutions must maintain traditionally excluded populations at the center. The points enumerated in this article only scratch the surface of the issues that must be explored through multiple lenses to be able to develop policies, practices and strategies that are relevant for the most marginalized and underserved students.