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City Visions: The problem and politics of sexual assault on the college campus

Kristi Boazman

Too many young women experience rape or other forms of sexual assault during college. Can universities do more to prevent this from happening? Once there’s an allegation, can both the rights of the victim and the accused be protected? And when everyone wants students to be safe on campus, why is this issue now so political? Join the conversation as host Joseph Pace and guests explore the problem of sexual assault and the politics of how it is handled on the college campus.


KATHLEEN BUCKSTAFF, columnist and author of Get Savvy

CASEY CORCORAN, Children and Youth Program Director at Futures Without Violence

KATHLEEN SALVATY, University of California Systemwide Title IX Coordinator

Produced by: Anne Harper
Edited Excerpts:

Joseph Pace: In your research and the interviews you did, what was your sense of how things have changed since this happened to you?

Kathleen Buckstaff: Well, what's interesting, what has changed is that I'm from a silent generation, so we didn't talk about sexual assault. It was something that was very, very quiet. We actually really hardly even talked about sex. So, my mother basically told me that it was important to be a virgin when I got married, and [laughter] it was a one sentence conversation where I was waiting for it to be over. And so I didn't have any kind of awareness that you could actually be sexually assaulted by somebody you knew. And that's where we really need to change this conversation because most sexual predators, unfortunately, are someone that we know. For someone, a juvenile, it's 93% of all juvenile sexual assaults of someone they know. And that's a really different conversation and it's a much harder conversation we need to have with our children. And we need to have it at a very young age.

Girls between the ages of 14 and 18 are four times more likely than the general public of being sexually assaulted. And so, that means we have to start really early and we need to start having hard conversations. So, it was different about talking with campus students and ones who were recent graduates is that they were open. They were willing to tell me really horribly hard, painful stories of things that had happened to them and things they had seen happen and what advice they'd offer somebody who was younger heading to college. So they had words where I did not and they were my teachers. So, they gave me words in a whole area that I didn't have any.



Joseph Pace: Kathleen Salvaty, you mentioned earlier some changes that were proposed by the US Department of Education, specifically on reversing some Obama-era guidelines. Tell us one of the ones that we haven't mentioned a lot so far is, [which is what] the burden of proof, or the standard of proof, is under the Obama guidance and what it's being proposed to be under the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education. Can you unpack that for us a little bit?


Kathleen Salvaty: Sure. The Obama administration had advised that the appropriate standard of proof when you're investigating and you make a finding as to whether someone committed sexual violence, the Obama administration had instructed that the appropriate standard of proof was preponderance of the evidence, which is much lower than a criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. It's essentially "more likely than not." Now, most colleges and universities were already using that standard and UC was one of them. But there were some colleges and universities that were not and that pushed back against the Obama administration's guidance that they needed to use this standard. Most recently, the Trump administration, their Office for Civil Rights issued guidance that said that schools could use the preponderance of the evidence standard, or they could use the clear and convincing evidence standard, which is a higher standard. And they said that they think you should use the same standard as you would for any other misconducts case.


Joseph Pace: One of the potential reasons...why [there was a] change in the burden or the standard of proof was because there was concern that somehow the rights of the accused were...short-circuited or compromised under the Obama-era guidelines and that there were students, in most cases male students, who were falsely accused and falsely convicted and had negative consequences on their lives and their education. How...prevalent is that concern in your mind?


Casey Corcoran: Well...we know that false reports of sexual violence are somewhere between, I believe, 2% and 6%, right in line with false reports of lots of other types of crime. We know it's incredibly rare, we know how invasive it is when someone comes forward to report an assault. It's not done lightly by that person. So, I think of course we have to ensure protections for both the victim and the accused...We know that most of these reports are not false, and we know that most of these cases of sexual violence are against women...The numbers aren't lying to us...It's like the 2014 guidance that was set up by the Department of Education - there are lots of protections for both the victim and the accused. So, I think we can't take these individual cases where there may have been a false accusation, and generalize those to all of the reports that are going on in all of the campuses across the county. Yes, there are gonna be mistakes. Yes, we have to minimize them. But we can't do that at the cost of silencing the voice of survivors who are bravely coming forward.


Joseph Pace: What do you look for as benchmarks of best practices?

Casey Corcoran: I think there's no perfect mix of programs and policies, but...I say know your numbers. Are people actually trying to measure what's going on in their campus, because without knowing the numbers, how are you going to address the realities of sexual violence on your campus? And that can be done through student interviews, through focus groups, and especially through Campus Climate Surveys on a regular basis. I want to see that there's a good prevention program not just freshmen year. I want it to happen before they get on campus and have it involving parents..., and I want to see it continue all the way until they're alums. I want to see students in leadership positions...having a strong voice and [to see] decision-making processes and good trauma-informed programs, so that when sexual violence or sexual assaults do happen on campus the response is survivor-centered, and it doesn't seek to re-traumatize that individual. And I think each school has to figure out for themselves what the right mix of all these are. One might be using a bystander intervention program, another might be implementing a different policy, but I think they need to be looking critically in all these areas in prevention, response, and adjudication, and be open and honest about the realities on their campus so they can address it.


Joseph Pace: Kathleen Salvaty, we've mentioned alcohol a number of times in the program tonight. How does UC or how should universities deal with it given that it is one of the major factors that drives incidents of sexual assault and violence?

Kathleen Salvaty: Yes. Well, I think it is definitely a difficult question...That is one of the underlying drivers. Now, in our prevention work and talking to our students, we always want to be clear that alcohol is not an excuse...It's often present, but it doesn't excuse anyone, and it certainly doesn't put fault on anyone. And so, it doesn't put fault on a survivor who did drink alcohol, and it doesn't excuse the behavior of someone who committed an assault because there was alcohol. So we always want to make that clear, yet have difficult conversations about alcohol and acknowledge its role in this problem.