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A college campus isn't the first place that comes to mind in a discussion about violent crime.
But research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1 out of 5 college women will be sexually assaulted. NPR's investigative unit teamed up with journalists at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) to look at the failure of schools — and the government agency that oversees them — to prevent these assaults and then to resolve these cases.
When a woman is sexually assaulted on a college campus, her most common reaction is to keep it quiet. Laura Dunn says she stayed quiet about what happened in April 2004 at the end of her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin.
"I always thought that rape was when someone got attacked by a stranger and you had to fight back," she says.
That night, Dunn was drinking so many raspberry vodkas that they cut her off at a frat house party. Still, she knew and trusted the two men who took her back to a house for what she thought was a quick stop before the next party. Instead, she says they raped her as she passed in and out of consciousness.
For a long time, she had a hard time even letting herself call it a rape. It just didn't make sense with the way she saw her life. For one thing, she had a boyfriend she had been dating for four years.
"We were getting close to marriage. We'd been waiting together, so I was still a virgin, and it just didn't fit what I'd wanted my life to be and what I'd planned out my life to be," says Dunn. "So I just kind of pushed it to the side, said, you know, it's this bad incident that happened, and it was just a mistake, we were all drunk. And I just chose to, like, put it there."
Instead, Dunn focused on her schoolwork and kept her grades up. But she couldn't sleep. She lost weight. She broke up with her boyfriend, without ever telling him about the attack.
And she didn't report it.
Fifteen months later, she was sitting in class. The professor was talking about how, in wartime, rape is used as a weapon of terror. "And this professor, who I'll forever respect, stopped the lecture and said, 'You know, I want to talk about rape on this campus.' "
The professor said that more than 80 percent of victims stay silent.
"And she said, 'I want you to know this has happened in my class to my students, and there is something you can do about it, and there is someone you can talk about it with.' And she told me about the dean of students." And with that, Dunn made a decision. "I know it was rape, and now I know that there's something I can do about it. And so the moment that lecture let up, I walked across to the dean of students' office and I reported that day."
Colleges and universities got their current-day responsibility to investigate and prevent sexual assaults as a result of an April 1986 crime, after a hard-fought advocacy campaign by the family of Jeanne Clery.
"What happened to Jeanne was so amazingly unreal," her mother, Connie Clery, says. "She was in the right place where she should have been — in her own bed in the dorm at 6 o'clock in the morning, fast asleep. There were three automatically locking doors that should have been locked, which she thought were locked, and she didn't have an enemy in the world. And Lehigh was such a safe-looking place, you know?"
Jeanne Clery was 19 and a freshman at Lehigh University. A stranger — he was a student — raped, tortured and strangled her.
In their grief, Connie Clery and her husband devoted the rest of their lives to making college campuses safer. "So if it happened to Jeanne, it could certainly happen to somebody else," Connie Clery says from the dining room of her home overlooking the St. Lucie River in Florida. "That's why I decided I had to do something to save others from such a horror."
Connie's husband, Howard, sold his successful business to underwrite their work. Connie, who had been terrified of speaking in public, went on TV morning shows and testified before lawmakers.
Their idea was simple: Force schools to disclose all crime that happens on campus. Then students — and their parents — would be informed. That would make the campus safer because faced with public scrutiny, college presidents would have no choice but to get serious about preventing crime.
Twenty years ago, Congress passed that disclosure law, now known as the Jeanne Clery Act.
There's been success. Over a recent 10-year period, the U.S. Department of Justice says campuses have reported a 9 percent drop in violent crime and a 30 percent drop in property crime, according to S. Daniel Carter, the public policy director of Security on Campus Inc., the nonprofit group started by the Clerys.
Carter points to another indicator of change: a 5 percent increase in campus police pay, adjusted for inflation. He says that shows that "the Clery Act really has led to colleges and universities to take campus security and protecting their students more seriously than they did 20 years ago."
But Carter says there have been shortcomings, too. And Connie Clery agrees. "The Department of Education has been a disappointment to me," she says.
The federal Department of Education regulates schools under the Clery Act. But it has fined offending schools just six times. Most fines have been small. The biggest — for $350,000 — came against Eastern Michigan University. Administrators there covered up the 2006 rape and murder of a student, 22-year-old Laura Dickinson, letting her parents think she'd died suddenly of natural causes.
The Department of Education can also hold schools accountable under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX is best known as the federal civil rights law that requires equality in men's and women's sports teams. But the law is broader than that. It says that any educational institution that takes federal funding cannot discriminate against women. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are also considered discrimination on the basis of sex.
"All too often, victims are revictimized by being forced to encounter their assailants on campus day in and day out," says Carter, "especially if they are suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, which can trigger panic attacks and have a significant adverse impact on their ability to continue their educational program."
Title IX is among the strongest tools for enforcement at the Education Department, says Carter. But few women know to use it. And when they do, the department rarely acts. Between 1998 and 2008, the department ruled against just five universities out of 24 complaints. That's according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Center for Public Integrity. No punishment was given in those cases — simply guidance on how to improve campus procedures.
Presented with those findings, Russlynn Ali, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, says her office is stepping up outreach to students and assistance to schools. "We want them to get training, we want to provide some help," she says, "so that the adults and the students alike can ensure that this plague — it's really has become a plague in this country — begins to diminish."
Ali says she's willing to take steps not used by her predecessors: to withdraw federal funding from offending schools and refer cases to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.
In Laura Dunn's case, by the time she reported to campus officials, one of the men she accused had graduated. The other said the sex was consensual. The University of Wisconsin took nine months to investigate, then decided against punishment.
As a last resort, Dunn asked the Department of Education to find that the university had failed in its responsibility to act promptly and to end the sexual harassment she faced being on campus with her alleged attacker.
Two years after Dunn graduated from the university, and nearly four years after the incident, a thick document came in the mail to her apartment. It was the finding by the Department of Education, dated August 6, 2008. She flipped to the last page. "I went straight to the conclusion," she explains.
It said the University of Wisconsin — despite taking nine months on her case — had acted properly. Defeated, Dunn didn't read on. She threw the papers on the top of a pile of other documents in the corner of her bedroom.
"You know, I could have fought it again, and I could have appealed. But that would have meant I would have had to read it, and at that point in my life, just reading it, I just didn't even want to. I did not want to read the ugly things that people said."
But Laura Dunn is no longer silent. She's a leader in a national grass-roots campaign, called PAVE, to get rape survivors to speak out in public.
Kevin Helmkamp, the associate dean of students at the University of Wisconsin, said privacy rules prohibited him from speaking specifically about Dunn's case. But he said the university investigates each allegation carefully, and provides support and resources to students.
Last September, the university updated its rules on student conduct. In the past, the school required "clear and convincing evidence" to find an accused student responsible of a sexual assault. But now, in line with most other schools as well as with federal guidelines, the standard is the lower "preponderance of evidence."
"Mathematically, that would be 51 percent of evidence," Helmkamp says, although in fact, the judgment is more subjective.
Sexual assault cases are among the most difficult matters to determine, he says. "They clearly are very, very difficult cases to investigate. Usually, there is not a lot of corroborating evidence for one side or the other," he says. "It does tend to come down to one person saying this happened and the other person saying, no it didn't happen that way."
The result, "I can assure you, is that someone is going to be unhappy" with the outcome of a decision.
Campus disciplinary programs are not set up like a court of law. Officials lack subpoena power and often end up with the accused and the accuser telling their stories, with a panel of a few campus officials trying to figure out the truth. Schools see the role of these courts to teach students more than to mete out justice. That's also why punishments tend to be light: Counseling and alcohol treatment are more likely than expulsion. The result is that large numbers of women who say they've been assaulted feel dissatisfied with the results, and large numbers of women end up leaving school.
Sometimes there are false accusations — although studies on college campuses in the U.S. and Great Britain show those are rare: about 3 to 6 percent of cases.
Because it's hard to sort out truth in such cases, more school administrators are realizing the importance of putting more emphasis on prevention.
Earlier this month, Security on Campus, the group started by Connie and Howard Clery, presented its annual security award to Nancy Greenstein. She's with the campus police department at UCLA.
That university, in its annual Clery report, shows more sexual assaults than many other schools the same size. At first, that makes it seem like UCLA is unsafe. But Carter says Greenstein was honored for creating a place where women feel comfortable going to police, and so more of them come forward to report a sexual assault.
Greenstein says the campus police, administration and student groups have increased efforts at prevention. And one of the most effective programs gets students talking to other students about the risks of drinking and rape, and the meaning of consent.
"You don't want any students to be harmed," she says of sexual assault. "It changes people's lives. So many students who have been victimized, in a sense they're never the same. And if we can prevent that from happening ... if I can prevent one person from being victimized, then that's successful."
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