Seeking Justice for Campus Rapes

Margaux walked the campus at Indiana University scared. She was startled if she saw someone who resembled the classmate she said raped her.

One month before, she'd come back to her dorm drunk. She said a man who lived down the hall came into her room and raped her as she passed in and out of consciousness. The man said the sex was consensual.

Now Margaux and that man were called together to attend a campus judicial hearing. She'd asked local police to prosecute, but when they refused Margaux was left to rely on the the college justice system.

On a college campus, this isn't a formal legal process like a court of law. Instead it fell to two campus administrators to sort out the truth, simply by asking the accused and the accuser for their sides of the story.

The hearing quickly turned chaotic. Margaux was in one room, talking via a speaker phone. The man and his father were in a room on another floor; they started calling Margaux names.

"It was just a shouting match," she remembers. "He called me a slut. And his dad, who's not supposed to speak, starts talking and saying, 'These college girls have one-night stands all the time.' "

Documents from Indiana University and a later federal investigation of Margaux's case show that the accused man had left a trail of trouble. Another woman said he'd tried to rape her in her bed, but s

he fought him off. She did not report those incidents to campus police. But she did send an e-mail to Margaux, who passed along the information to campus officials. When they asked the woman to come to the hearing, she declined. Still, the man, a freshman, like Margaux, was known to campus police. He'd been arrested and charged with a felony for beating up a male student.

The man Margaux accuses did not answer NPR's requests for an interview. Officials at Indiana University cited student privacy laws and also declined to be interviewed.

After the hearing ended, Margaux waited in the room with the speaker phone. An hour later, the hearing officer came to explain.

"So the door opens, he comes in, he sits on one side of me," says Margaux. "I remember him saying — and he used the word 'rape' — and he said, 'I know that he raped you,' and then he went back on what he said. He said, 'I believe you, I know that that happened.' "

The campus official told Margaux that the man had been found responsible for an offense called "inappropriate sexual conduct" while the two of them were drunk.

Campus disciplinary procedures are run by educators, not by lawyers. And educators tend to think less in terms of justice — and look for what they call teachable moments.

Documents from Indiana University show that the man Margaux accused continued to insist the sex was consensual. But he did admit to having a drinking problem.

And that was a teachable moment for the hearing officer. Margaux remembers: "He tells me that, that my rapist was crying and admitting that he's an alcoholic. And I remember him saying 'I think we really made a breakthrough.' "

As a result, the punishment was light. It was already finals week of spring term. The man was suspended through the summer semester. He was told he could return in the fall if he stayed away from Margaux and got counseling and alcohol treatment.

A History Of Slaps On The Wrist

NPR's investigation found that most men found responsible for campus sexual assault get only mild punishment. Reporters at the Center for Public Integrity obtained a database of about 130 colleges and universities that got federal grants because they wanted to do a better job dealing with sexual assault. Even when men at those schools were found responsible for sexual assault, only 10 to 25 percent were expelled.

Margaux expected the man she accused to be expelled.

"Of course the sentence was weak and horrible," she says. "But the fact that I had to sit there and listen to this guy tell me that he was feeling bad for the guy who just raped me, not only raped me but was completely unapologetic. And he what, he breaks down, and cries and this guy is telling me how bad, he's telling me how bad he feels for the guy who just raped me. I mean it's just, that's really just broke me down the most. It just made me feel really defeated, which I was already feeling defeated."

A few days later, a dean overrode the hearing officers and extended the suspension to last one full year.

Still, Margaux couldn't stand the thought that she'd be on the same campus again with the man. So, like large numbers of women who take sexual assault charges to campus judicial hearings, she dropped out of school.

"This was a purely predatory crime," says Margaux's mother, Eva. (NPR has agreed to use first names to protect the family's privacy.) "A man waiting in the wee hours of the night for a woman to come in who he could overpower. And that's exactly what he did. You believe the victim and you're going to suspend him and force this victim to look for another school? It's unfathomable."

A Last Resort

Margaux's family took another route that's available to women, but rarely used. They filed a request for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Indiana University for violating Title IX, based on the way it handled the sexual assault.

Title IX is commonly known as the federal law that requires equality in men's and women's sports teams. But the law is broader than that: It says that any school that takes federal funding cannot discriminate against women. And that means putting an end to sexual harassment.

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation. Margaux argued that it created a "hostile environment" for her to be on the same campus as the man who'd been found responsible for assaulting her. But in April 2009, the department concluded that Indiana University did not need to expel the man.

Between 1998 and 2008, the Office for Civil Rights ruled against just five universities — out of 24 resolved complaints. There were no punishments — just orders to universities to improve their disciplinary procedures. That's according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

New Leadership, Stronger Sanctions?

Russlynn Ali was appointed by President Obama as assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights. Presented with those numbers, she says her office will be more aggressive, and she's prepared to use strong sanctions that have not been used by her predecessors. "We will use all of the tools at our disposal including referring to (the Department of) Justice or withholding federal funds to ensure that women are free from sexual violence."

Ali says she can't speak specifically about Margaux's case."What I can say is, if a similar fact pattern presented itself now, we would work closely with university officials to make sure that that woman was protected from a hostile environment at any point during her tenure at the university. And that the behavior changed; that other women were not subject to similar acts of violence."

Still, that will come too late for Margaux and her family. Margaux's mother, Eva, has become a national anti-rape activist. She's gone back to Bloomington, Ind., to work with a new county prosecutor who has improved the treatment of rape victims.

Margaux has dealt with more difficulty in her life. Last September, the man she was dating died, from a chronic kidney disease he'd faced since childhood. She'd known him from high school and he'd helped her deal with her panic attacks and fears since the rape.

Still, Margaux is trying to get her life back on track. She's enrolled in a college in Chicago.

As for the man found responsible for attacking her, he dropped out of Indiana University, too. Now he's going to school in Chicago as well. He lives not far away.

Margaux is still startled when she sees someone on the street who resembles him.