Covering Campus Sexual Assault

Center for Public Integrity staff writer Kristen Lombardi explains how she pierced the shroud of secrecy surrounding rape on college campuses.

Is sexual assault the best-kept secret on U.S. college campuses? A wide-ranging muckraking series by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity reveals a disturbing culture of silence surrounding rape among students and institutional barriers to those victims who seek justice. Indeed, the investigation by staff writers Kristen Lombardi and Kristin Jones, published on the Center for Public Integrity website beginning in December 2009, reveals that many schools’ procedures protect alleged perpetrators instead of women who report assault.

Lombardi talked with Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, about the journalistic challenges in documenting what the series calls a “culture of secrecy.” Lombardi, a 2003 Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, has special expertise in the institutional coverup of sexual crimes: A decade ago, as a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix, she broke the story of how Boston’s Catholic Church hierarchy covered up for a serial sexual offender in the priesthood.

Bruce Shapiro: How did you get interested in investigating campus sexual assault?

Kristen Lombardi: In April 2008 I went to conference on covering sexual violence, co-sponsored by the Poynter Institute and the Dart Society. I sat on a panel with Miles Moffeit of the Denver Post, who had covered sexual assault in the military. We talked about how to do investigative stories with sex abuse victims.

The audience was made up of daily crime reporters and victim advocates, and the idea was to bridge these two worlds. I talked about the first story I did in Boston, which broke the church sex abuse scandal. I talked about working with these victims — the care I took in working with them to tell their stories and what it meant to them to see the end result. I laid it out like that because of this distrust that a lot of victim advocates have of journalists, especially of daily crime reporters.

At that panel, a number of victim advocates talked with me about these college disciplinary processes. I was looking for my next big investigative project at the Center for Public Integrity and so I decided: Well, I am going look into it. And it wasn’t very long before I began to realize this is something major — an issue that is underreported and neglected which definitely deserves coverage.

BS: How did you begin your reporting?

KL: I started with victim advocates, especially victim advocates who work on campuses, and with groups like Security on Campus and the Victim Rights Law Center.

We did a survey early on — 152 crisis service programs at campus clinics. The idea was to contact people who would be front-line responders to student victims to get a broad sense of what was happening on campuses across the country by asking general questions about sexual assault:  the dynamics of response to assaults on their campuses, and, of course, policies, procedures and problems. We were also asking to introduce us to survivors. That’s where it began.

BS: The first story in your series opens with Kathryn Russell from the University of Virginia, who challenged the secrecy imposed on her after she filed a rape complaint. How did you find her?

KL: I found Kathryn Russell’s mother through Daniel Carter of Security on Campus. Security on Campus had filed a joint complaint against UVA (University of Virginia) on behalf of another student. Daniel Carter said you should check out UVA Victims of Rape, run by Kathryn’s mother. I contacted her mother through the website.

It took a year of talking with her mother for Kathryn to meet me. Kathryn was really angry at the treatment she had received by past media. So when I finally got her to agree to sit down for coffee, I explained carefully what we were doing: “Here are the angles. Your story illustrates XYZ angle. I want to know what you think about that.”

She talked for about 20 minutes about the horrible experiences she has had with reporters, beginning with a college reporter for the UVA paper. How incredibly traumatizing it was to read certain words in print. She had spent three hours with CBS Early Show doing a taped interview that they cut down to 20 seconds. She had spent an equal amount of time talking to a magazine writer who never ended up doing anything.

So she felt: What is the point in telling you this story? Who is going to care?

I accepted blame for these past vices by other reporters. And then I said:  "Here is who I am; here is what I am doing. I think you’ll find a difference between how I write about your case. Let me send you past articles I’ve done. I just want you to think about it."

I sent her past articles. And then she asked me about reading drafts. She wanted to know what would appear, so she would not be stunned by it. She asked me all kinds of questions about the process.

BS: You also talked to many victims who had never discussed their cases publicly before.

KL: A lot of people didn’t understand the depths with which I was going to look into this issue. And they were young. Kathryn was one of the oldest — she is 26 — but I’ve talked to students who were 19, too.

It was difficult. A lot of students thought they would just tell me their story and that’s all I would need. But I needed documents. I needed to corroborate what they were saying, and, if I was going to feature their cases, I needed people who were comfortable with me filing records requests for their judicial file, talking to the school officials, signing waivers granting permission so the school officials would talk to me. I needed them knowing I was going to go to the accused student. The women knew what this accused person would say about them. At that point it became clear who was comfortable with that kind of reporting and who wasn’t. Our top cases were only those people who were comfortable.

BS: You describe campus sexual assault as “shrouded in secrecy.”

KL: First of all, there is a culture of secrecy simply because so many student victims feel ashamed. That’s reinforced by peer pressure on a college campus. That is the difference between college women and women in the general population. Rape is an underreported crime overall, but 20 percent of rape victims in the general population do come forward. At the college level, on the other hand, it’s less than five percent. There’s a lot of fear, especially if two students might know each other, of how their social circles might handle it.

Then there is the official secrecy, which envelops the disciplinary process. It is quite common for people to have no idea that a hearing is taking place — except for the hearing board members and administrators. There is no announcement, even in a campus newspaper. Some schools take it further, with policies that really keep student victims out of the process. I was really surprised at the number of student victims who had any idea of what happened to their complaint. They knew they had filed the complaint, and the outcome, but had no idea what happened in between: They just are not part of the process.

One typical case we write about is Alphia Morin — this student was treated in the proceeding as a witness to her own alleged assault. So she is not an equal party. She is not allowed to sit and hear what her alleged assailant has to say about her in the incident. Then she was told she had to sign a confidentiality agreement if she wanted to find out the outcome.

Those kinds of confidentiality agreements violate the Clery Act (The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act). There is a section called the Victims' Bill of Rights, with a stipulation that says every student victim must be informed of the hearing outcome.

BS: This is a complicated story to tell. You’ve got education institutions all over the country. Plus human sources and documentary sources. How did you break the storytelling down?

KL: That was a huge challenge. We started with 50 student victims. Then we separated out people we interviewed who never reported. I thought they were an important voice to understand because they do represent the silent majority. But I knew that we wouldn’t be pursuing their cases, because we were investigating the process.

We also separated out students who said they were assaulted by professors. They were a tiny minority. I am sure they exist, but you have to prioritize.

That left us 33. Then we looked at those 33, and we figured out similarities — how their stories overlap. What were the commonalities of their experiences. And we decided those were our narrative themes. And we organized the stories around those narrative themes. And then for each one we would pick a main narrative case.

BS: How was this alike or different from your past reporting on church sexual abuse?

KL: I thought I would be prepared for it because I have interviewed a lot of victims. But these were really young victims. And I was not prepared. The difference between them and church victims was decades. The church victims had years to process what had happened to them. They were emotionally more mature. That made a huge difference in their ability to open up and to be able to handle what they were feeling when they were reliving their stories.

With the student victims, people fell apart on me after the fact. I take great pride in the compassion and care that I exhibit. I try to be very thoughtful as an interviewer. I try very hard not to retraumatize. But I was really unprepared for how much people would flip out. People dropped out. People have disappeared. I have one victim who has an incredible story who disappeared, who won’t respond. Also, I took it really personally. I took a lot of it really personally, and I was surprised by that.

BS: Let’s say a college student wants to look at how sexual assault is handled on a particular campus. Where do you go for documents for something so shrouded in secrecy?

KL: I would find out who on your campus serves as a victim advocate. I would develop that person as a source and explain the desire to lift the curtain. Perhaps the victim advocate can be convinced to introduce you to a student who has been through the process as a victim. Once you have a student who has been through the process, see if she is willing to show you documents or to sign a disclosure waiver so that you can file a records request.

If you are a student reporter and your school is not releasing statistics, you should be filing records requests and asking for aggregate statistics on the number of sexual assault reports coming through the judicial affairs office, which then has hearings. And the dispositions, and the sanctions and the names of all accused students actually found responsible. They should be releasing this information. There is nothing in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that prevents them from releasing this information. Even if you can at least get a sense of the number of hearings, then you can work to figure out the names of accused students found responsible for sexual assaults.

If there is a finding of responsibility, you should be able to get those names.

Watch video of Kristen Lombardi answering three questions on the practical and ethical challenges of covering sexual assault.