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What Rape? 

Vermont's higher-ed institutions are underreporting student sexual assaults

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It was the night before graduation, and Nicole was in full party mode. And why not? The hardest part of her college career was behind her. Or so she thought.

Nicole (who asked that her full name and school not be published to protect her identity) doesn’t remember much about that night. She knows she attended a party and drank way too much. So a “friend” offered to walk her home.

At the time, her escort seemed like a safe choice. He was a friend of her boyfriend, with a girlfriend of his own. Smart, clean cut, popular and good looking, he was “the complete opposite of what people think of when they think of an attacker,” Nicole says.

And she was arguably the opposite of what most people think of when they think of a rape victim: self-confident, bright, physically fit, with the street smarts of someone who grew up just outside New York City.

When Nicole awoke the morning after, it was painfully obvious what had happened. Her clothes had been removed, and there was “evidence” on the sheets. Her attacker was gone. Alone, afraid and numb with shock, she had no idea what to do next.

“My parents and family were in town, the graduation ceremony was about to begin, and I was expected to be dressed,” Nicole recalls. “So, without really thinking about it, I jumped in the shower, got ready, put on my cap and gown, and went about my day as if nothing had really happened.”

Nicole’s family and friends sensed something was wrong. But a week passed before she told anyone — her boyfriend. “And then everything just blew up from there,” she says.

Nicole eventually called a campus safety officer, who encouraged her to file a police report. However, lacking physical evidence, which must be gathered within 72 hours, the police couldn’t charge or arrest her attacker. To add insult to injury, the complaint Nicole filed with her school led to no disciplinary action against him.

“The school said it was my word against his,” Nicole recalls. “So it would have been a drawn-out legal battle that would have been ugly and even more devastating to me … I just wanted to heal and move forward. So I dropped it.”

Nicole eventually got on with her life, but not without years of counseling. Today, she volunteers with a violence-prevention group in central Vermont and teaches high school and college students how to avoid becoming victims themselves. Whenever Nicole tells her story publicly, she says, she’s approached by other women who share similar stories.

“It’s really common,” Nicole says. “It’s scary how common it is.”

But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the annual crime statistics that Vermont’s colleges and universities publish as they’re required to do under the federal Clery Act. Those reports, which are all available online, are supposed to include every crime that occurs on college campuses, ranging from vandalism and larceny to drug and alcohol offenses to rape, arson and murder. Schools must publish those numbers even when the crimes are reported anonymously and result in no further legal action.

However, a review of Clery statistics filed by Vermont’s institutions of higher learning in the past decade suggests that the number of sexual assaults they report to the government is far lower than the number that actually occur. That conclusion is based on what sexual violence experts say they’re hearing from campus women’s centers, counseling units and rape crisis hotlines, as well as from national statistics on the prevalence of college sexual assaults.

By their very nature, sex crimes are among the hardest to document, given the many factors that discourage victims from contacting the authorities. However, decades of research shed some light on these crimes’ prevalence. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 20 to 25 percent of all women on campuses will become the victims of an attempted or completed rape at some point during their college careers. And, like Nicole, nine out of 10 victims will know their assailants.

But the Clery reports filed for the three academic years 2006 to 2008 give no indication that sex crimes are so pervasive in Vermont. During those years, Bennington College (808) and the Community College of Vermont, which has more than 10,000 students, reported zero. Champlain College, which has 2000 students, reported only one rape in three years, as did Vermont Technical College, with 1650 students.

St. Michael’s College, with 2500 students, and Johnson State College (2000) each reported three rapes during that time. Castleton State College (1800) reported four, and Norwich University (2100) five. Middlebury College (student population: 2350) reported eight forcible sexual offenses.*** Admittedly, Vermont’s violent crime rate is well below the national average. But such stats suggest that sexual violence has been all but eradicated from the Green Mountain State.

No one in law enforcement or violence prevention believes that’s the case. In fact, Vermont’s underreporting of college sex crimes is consistent with the findings of a nine-month investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. That investigation, whose results were published several weeks ago, found “systemic problems” in the accuracy of many colleges’ Clery figures.

In part, those discrepancies stem from administrative confusion over the definition of sexual offenses, as well as different interpretations of what needs to be reported. But the CPI investigation also discovered that some colleges and universities deliberately downplayed or obscured the true incidence of sexual crimes on their campuses, in some cases failing to include dozens of documented rapes in their official tallies.

Thus far, no one has suggested that Vermont’s college administrators are fudging their numbers. But, based on the known prevalence of sexual violence in society, it’s likely that their official numbers represent the tip of a very large iceberg.

UVM is one of a dozen New England schools that receive Department of Justice grants to curb sexual violence on campus. The grants, which UVM has been getting since 2000, are meant to boost campus awareness of sexual violence, expand victim services and increase the reporting of offenses.

Nonetheless, between 2004 and 2009, only 12 sexual assaults were reported to UVM police; another 86 were reported anonymously. LuAnn Rolley, director of the University of Vermont Women’s Center, says the real number is much higher.

Nationally, about 3 percent of all college women will report an attempted or completed rape during a nine-month period, Rolley says, citing DOJ statistics. Since 56 percent of UVM’s 12,800 students are female, the Women’s Center could expect about 215 reports of sexual violence in a typical academic year.

How many were reported? About 70 in the last fiscal year, but complaints included stalking and relationship violence. Not surprisingly, the majority came from women. Between 2004 and 2009, 19 cases went through UVM’s internal judicial process. Of those, 13 resulted in expulsion or suspension. “Based on what we’re hearing from other schools, those numbers are actually pretty high,” Rolley says.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants spent on violence awareness and prevention, why don’t UVM’s Clery numbers more accurately reflect the real picture? One problem is the federal reporting standards themselves. Under Clery, sex crimes that involve students living off campus often don’t appear if complaints were filed with a municipal police department. The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations (CUSI), which investigates sex crimes, tracks victims by their town of residence and where the crime occurred, not by the college they or their assailants attend.

Similarly, the Women’s Rape Crisis Center in Burlington doesn’t routinely ask victims for demographic information, such as whether they’re enrolled in college, unless victims are seeking counseling or other services. But Cathleen Wilson, the center’s executive director, estimates that college students make up about 10 percent of the thousands of calls WRCC receives annually.

Rolley points out that many rape survivors do exactly what Nicole did: Dreading the idea of a traumatizing criminal trial, they “drop it” and try to move on with their lives. Victims often feel shame, embarrassment and guilt, and fear not being believed.

Moreover, if the victim is gay, lesbian, transgender or a person of color, he or she may have a historically based distrust of law enforcement, Rolley adds, especially in predominantly straight and white communities. If the assailant is a person of color, the victim may be afraid that reporting the crime will reinforce racial stereotypes. The stigma of being raped can be compounded when the victim is male.

Finally, given that drugs and alcohol are involved in more than half of campus sex crimes, Rolley says victims often fear being blamed for their attack — “You were drunk! What do you expect?” — or they can’t remember who attacked them. Victims who are under 21 may mistakenly believe they’ll be held accountable for their underage drinking. Rolley emphasizes that UVM’s “Got Your Back” policy allows survivors to report these crimes without fear of legal or academic repercussions.

“I would love to see more victims report,” Rolley concludes, “but only if they’re able to experience a just system.”

What’s UVM doing to establish such a system? One big step in that direction was the appointment last June of Lianne Tuomey as the school’s police chief. Tuomey, a 27-year law enforcement veteran and former Burlington cop, has made sexual-violence prevention one of her top priorities. Among her earliest decisions was to appoint a UVM police officer to work full time at CUSI conducting criminal investigations.

Like Rolley, Tuomey “doesn’t believe for a second” that UVM’s Clery numbers reflect what’s truly going on. And, while she doesn’t think anyone is deliberately covering up the problem, she says she understands victims’ reluctance to come forward. One of her goals is to dispel the common myth that if victims come into her office, police and prosecutors will “drive it” through the criminal justice system.

“That’s just not true,” Tuomey insists. “You, as the victim, still get to decide where this all goes. It’s always your choice. But by not reporting, you lose a lot.”

That said, many sexual-violence- prevention advocates say that putting the emphasis on whether victims report crimes evades the heart of the problem: Who are the perpetrators?

“It’s a lot easier for us to focus on the victim: ‘Here’s someone who’s hurting, so let’s throw them a line of help,’” says Karen Tronsgard-Scott, director of the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “It’s much harder for us to look at our sons and say, ‘My son just committed an act of sexual violence.’”

Rolley agrees.

“We know that one in four women are being assaulted on college campuses, but it’s not one in four men who are assaulting them,” she notes. “There’s a small number of perpetrators out there who are reoffending. So I think we need to look more into that.”

A number of campuses have begun doing just that. Middlebury College and UVM have active men’s groups dedicated to preventing rape. One of the more innovative approaches is found on the Norwich University campus.

Bobbi Gagne is executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Team in Barre, which covers Washington County. She says that as recently as a decade ago, her organization had virtually no presence at Norwich. To her it seemed like they were “missing the mark” on educating a student body that’s more than 75 percent male.

But five years ago, the Sexual Assault Crisis Team negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Norwich. Instead of “putting a Band-Aid” on problems after the fact, the school integrated Gagne’s sexual-violence-prevention program into the new student-orientation process. Today, she’s on campus for about 10 hours each week.

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago whether we’d be on that campus at all,” Gagne says, “I would have said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Maybe everyone needs a little education. Several of the people contacted for this story suggested that it’s high time society changes its attitude about consent.

“It’s interesting that the responsibility for women when it comes to engaging in a sexual act has always been … that ‘I said no,’” says UVM’s Tuomey. “Why isn’t it that the man has to get a clear and unequivocal yes?”

*** Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Middlebury College reported no sexual assaults in the three academic years between 2006 and 2008. In fact, it reported eight "forcible sexual offenses." Seven Days regrets the error.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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