An Exploration of Campus Sexual Assaults, Online Prevention Programs, and the Procedural Fairness of Campus Disciplinary Proceedings

Michelle A. Malone, University of New Haven
Sexual assaults, regardless of when and where they occur or to whom they victimize, are a serious public health problem that brutally harms victims, both physically and mentally.  The statistics demonstrating the pervasiveness of sexual assaults in the United States are astounding.  Nearly one in three women and approximately one in six men suffer from some form of sexual violence during their lifetime (Zapp, Buelow, Soutiea, Berkowitz, & DeJong, 2018).  Non-majority populations, inclusive of “persons with disabilities, certain racial/ethnic groups and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” are more likely to be victimized than their peers (Zapp, et al., 2018, p. 2).  More particularly, females between the ages of 18- and 24-years old experience the highest rates of rape and sexual assaults (Moore & Baker, 2018).   Research indicates that “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation” are both the long and short-term health consequences for victims following attacks (Fedina, Holmes, & Backes, 2018, p. 76).  Assault victims may be even more susceptible to revictimization, academic suffering, and the engagement of risky behaviors, including drug experimentation and binge drinking (Fedina, et al., 2018).  Therefore, any reductions in sexual assaults will benefit at-risk victim populations.


Colleges and universities containing large concentrations of young women, coupled with large concentrations of potential offenders whose “peers [can] reinforce [harmful] patriarchal gender norms,” contribute to high occurrences of campus assaults (Konradi, 2017, p. 375).  Notably, research findings suggest that more than one-third of campus rapes occur at fraternity houses or functions (Jozkowski &Wiersma-Mosley, 2017).  Despite the frequency of sexual attacks, exceptionally few victims actually report their assaults.  Estimates reveal that only 20% of college women report their attacks to police, and even fewer (16%) seek out assistance from support agencies regardless of the fact that nearly 78% of the college-aged female victims that are attacked are by a familiar perpetrator (Moore & Baker, 2018, p. 3420).  Even more troubling, less than 25% of reported rapes are ultimately prosecuted by law enforcement (Moore & Baker, 2018, p. 3434). 

The prevalence of sexual assaults involving college students calls to question the likelihood of whether those assaults will be reported and, if so, whether the resulting investigatory procedures and disciplinary practices comply with federal mandates to ensure that both the victim and the accused experience procedural justice.  Additionally, the question is raised as to whether students are exposed to adequate or even any educational resources geared towards preventing assaults.  This essay explores existing literature on campus sexual assaults, the effectiveness of online preventative programs, and the degree of procedural due process afforded to students during campus disciplinary proceedings. 


The Legal Requirements for Campus Administration

Campus adjudication procedures for sexual assault complainants provide the opportunity for students to report their victimization to institution officials and allow students to confront their assailants directly, regardless of whether a formal criminal complaint is initiated.  Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that, among other things, prohibits discrimination based on sex, including the prohibition of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, at any federally funded educational establishment including institutions of higher learning (Konradi, 2017).  Pursuant to the 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (CSVEA), such institutions of higher learning are required to enact “‘prompt, fair, and impartial investigation[s] and resolution[s]’” of all allegations of sexual misconduct brought before the institution (Konradi, 2017, p. 378).  As a result, institutions must provide students with “written definitions of sexual misconduct, how to report victimization, the adjudication process, the standard of evidence, and appeal procedures” (Konradi, 2017, p. 378).  
Federal case law has established that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires institutions of higher education to provide public school students subject to expulsion and suspensions with notice of charges against them, the grounds that substantiate the charges, copies of any pertinent evidence, and access to a hearing that affords the accused the opportunity to present a defense (Konradi, 2017).  However, this right to a hearing does not grant the accused the right to cross-examine their accuser.  Any line of questioning concerning the accuser’s sexual conduct must be limited to consensual or nonconsensual relations with the accused.  Institutions are charged with developing internal policies that dictate the procedural format of the hearing.  The standard of proof that the accused is entitled to receive is that of “substantial evidence,” defined as being no lower than the “preponderance of evidence” that constitutes a criminal act (Konradi, 2017, p. 381).  Federal courts also have ruled that due process does not require that accused students have a right to counsel, although an attorney may be their advisor.  Notably, none of these protections extend by right to students at private colleges or universities (Konradi, 2017). 
All federal regulations are silent as to whether the victim is entitled to present a victim impact statement upon a substantiation of their claims.  Currently, although some schools have them, there are no federal amnesty type policies that would potentially protect victimized students from being charged with school infractions for revealing their own violations of codes of conduct for the inappropriate use of alcohol or illegal substances (Konradi, 2017).  Only recent mandates have cautioned institutions to ensure that they do not inflict additional harm or trauma on the accuser. 

The Likelihood of Student Reporting

The prevalence of sexual assaults involving college students calls to question the likelihood of whether those assaults will be reported and, if so, whether the resulting investigatory procedures and disciplinary practices comply with federal mandates to ensure that both the victim and the accused experience procedural justice.  Additionally, the question is raised as to whether students are exposed to adequate or even any educational resources geared towards preventing assaults. 
Prior research indicates that the most common explanation for failing to report a sexual assault is the victim’s perception that the incident is too personal to discuss (Moore & Baker, 2018).  Psychological barriers to reporting, ranging from shame to fear of retaliation, frequently cause victims to conceal their assaults as matters to be reconciled only on their own terms (Moore & Baker, 2018).  Previous studies have assessed the “characteristics of the victim, characteristics of the incident, and the victim’s psychological response to the incident” and have found that the victim is “most likely to tell a friend, followed by family members and significant others, with reporting to campus authorities and police as the least likely avenue of reporting” (Moore & Baker, 2018, p. 3420-3421).  Among the research concerning victim characteristics, it has been found that African American women who are older, less educated, and of a lower income bracket are more likely to report a sexual assault over “younger, higher income, more educated White women” (Moore & Baker, 2018, p. 3421).  Incident characteristics, particularly the seriousness of the offense and the relationship between the victim and assailant, are better indicators of the victim’s decision to report.  Stranger assaults, assaults by assailants of a race different than the victim, assaults by multiple offenders, and assaults that occurred at an unfamiliar location are all more likely to be reported (Moore & Baker, 2018).  Incidents involving alcohol are found to be the least likely to be reported. 
The underreporting of sexual assaults is not the only limitation on the ability to quantify accurately the frequency of occurrence.  Lack of institutional reporting requirements and inconsistencies among the definitions used to describe various types of assaults contribute to challenges in understanding the degree and extent of the prevalence of campus sexual assaults (Fedina, et al., 2018).  For example, of the incidents reported, there may be little indications as to the exact nature of the allegation (e.g. unwanted sexual contact versus an attempted or completed rape). 

Legal Requirements for Preventative Education

Federal mandates require public institutions of higher learning to collect and disseminate information on their incidents of campus sexual assault and require the offering of sexual assault preventive education to their students.  Specifically, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics of 1990 mandates the standards and procedures governing the collection of campus sexual assault information and reporting to the campus community (Klein, Graham, Treves-Kagan, Deck, DeLong & Martin, 2018).  The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 and the 2013 Reauthorization of VAWA focus on the development of campus sexual assault prevention and intervention programs (Klein et. al, 2018). 
Basically, institutions are required to “provide programming to all incoming students and new employees aimed at primary prevention of campus violence and safety awareness” (Klein, et al., 2018, p.3300).  In 2014, the Obama Administration initiated the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.  Although this initiative provided comprehensive guidance within a checklist of recommended prevention and response procedures, the checklist has already been retracted by the Trump Administration.  In September 2017, U.S. Department of Education expressed dissatisfaction with the checklist, classifying it as a “‘failed system’” and released interim guidance on ways campuses should address incidents of campus sexual assaults (Klein, et. al, 2018, p. 3299). 

Effectiveness of Preventative Education

The growing recognition of the prevalence and damage that sexual assaults cause, along with the need to comply with state and federal regulations, have intensified the preventive education efforts offered by institutions of higher learning.  Although there is little peer reviewed research on sexual violence prevention programs, some studies have reported that such programs demonstrate positive changes in student attitudes and even reductions in reported assaults (Zapp, et al., 2018).  Student surveys overwhelmingly represent the most popular assessment tool for the evaluation of the impact sexual assaults have on campus-aged populations.  Researchers continually poll students to assess the likelihood of whether they would report an assault, as well as to study student perceptions concerning their perceived frequency of sexual assault incidents and if they would likely intervene to prevent one from occurring. 
Moore and Baker (2018) sought to examine the issue of whether student victims of abuse were likely to report to either the police or university officials.  Their study surveyed 336 college students, the majority of which were female juniors studying criminal justice or forensic science at a large southern university.  The survey consisted of 62 hypothetical questions varying the location of an assault and the purported victim’s familiarity with the assailant.  The survey controlled for the following factors: age, race, sex, year in school, grade-point average, major, and whether the respondent or a family member of the respondent had a history of victimization.  The dependent variables concerned the likelihood of reporting to a certain type of individual, depending upon the location of the offense and the victim’s familiarity with the assailant.  The independent variables concerned different psychological responses that potentially impacted the decision to report.
Another recent study attempted to evaluate the Haven- Understanding Sexual Assault program, an online sexual assault prevention course offered by more than 600 institutions of higher education in the United States (Zapp, et al. 2018).  Haven is a two-part, one-hour program typically provided to incoming first year students.  Course content focuses on the correction of misperceptions of normative behavior, increasing the likelihood that a student would intervene when witnessing inappropriate conduct, and encouraging empathy for victims (Zapp, et al., 2018).  The study surveyed 167,424 first year college students from 80 different four-year institutions.  Participants completed preintervention and postintervention questionnaires to assess whether they experienced changes in composite factor scores. Questions consisted of 20 attitudinal, self-efficacy, and behavioral intention items.  On average, students took the second survey 59 days after their first set of responses.   The study analyzed student responses to determine the short-impact of the online program and whether a positive shift in attitude occurred after taking the course (Zapp, et al., 2018). 
The findings of Moore and Baker (2018) and the Haven study both indicate that campus policies and protocol may have an important impact on student perceptions, particularly those that effect a student’s likelihood to report a sexual assault and a student’s likelihood to intervene when an assault is occurring or is imminent.  For each of the scenarios presented in the Moore and Baker (2018) study, “students reported that they would be significantly more likely to report an incident to the police than to report to a university official” (p. 3432).  This reluctance to seek assistance from university officials and preference to report, if at all, to the police is very telling as to the degree of perceived trust and confidence victimized students have for their administrators.  Notably, Moore and Baker (2018) found that “[w]anting justice, trust in police and university officials, and a desire for services [were] among the most consistent factors that affect students’ likelihood to report to both the police and university officials” (p. 3419). 
The Haven study, which assessed the impact of an online educational program, resulted in a “high percentage of institutions [seeing] statistically significant increases in self-reported ability and intention to intervene to prevent sexual assault and relationship violence (98%) empathy and support for victims (84%), and corrected perceptions of social norms (75%)” (Zapp et al., 2018, p. 2).  The findings of these two studies lead to very similar conclusions.  What institutions of higher education do to connect with their students impacts how students react to sexual assaults, whether they are victims, perpetrators, or bystanders. 

Procedural Justice on Campus

When questioning whether institutions of higher learning are in compliance with federal legislation focused on sexual assault, whether campus policies are fair and equally protect the accused and accusing students, and whether campus policies encourage reporting, Konradi (2017) conducted an investigative study of all four-year residential institutions in the state of Maryland.  A total of 25 schools were evaluated, 11 of which were public.  The smallest school enrolled 301 undergraduates and the largest state university enrolled over 35,000.  The only policy documents reviewed during the course of the study pertained to the management of campus sexual assaults and violations of codes of conduct that were publicly available online.  Noteworthy findings indicated that (1) accusers appeared poorly protected in the event allegations of sexual assault or abuse were raised to campus officials; (2) public schools, compared to private, seemed to provide more due process safeguards to the accused; (3) very few institutions provided victim-centered protections for accusers and (4) approaches that were adversarial (trial-like) were more effective at protecting due process rights than protracted investigative proceedings (Konradi, 2017). 


From a policy perspective, these studies offer vital information regarding students, their perceptions, and their needs for added protections.  According to Konradi (2017), “[i]incentives for survivors to report victimization and use campus processes to hold assailants accountable are generally not present” (2018, p. 386).  Instead, victims are most likely to confide in a friend, if any one at all.  A focus on the increased encouragement of official reporting through federal mandates and individual university policies will better serve victimized students.  Likewise, by acknowledging the fact that victims most likely will report an attack to a peer, better equipping peers to respond by providing them with information on how to handle and encourage the reporting of a sexual assault likely will result in increased reporting and increased exposure of victimized students to appropriate, professional support services. 
Peer support training can and should be offered in conjunction with existing preventive educational programs that have proven their effectiveness through various studies.  When exposed to an institution’s new student population, positive social norm perceptions can be established, empathy for student victims can be generated, advisory skills can be taught to peers, and a student’s willingness and ability to successfully intervene to assist a victimized student can be fostered.   Likewise, institutions that communicate clearer policies regarding the procedure for the filing of a sexual assault complaint, coupled with ensuring that their policies focus on victim support, will provide greater incentives for a victim to come forward.  Although fairness is a perceptional notion, providing student victims with a safe means to report an attack and pursue justice should be the paramount concern for institutions of higher learning.
While appropriate policies concerning campus adjudication procedures for sexual assaults may be in place, little research has been conducted to test whether school officials are following those procedures legitimately.  Data can only enhance policy construction if it is accessible, understandable, and able to be uniformized, and disseminated for use by practitioners and policy makers alike.  Improved policies concerning data collection, and perhaps mandating the construction of a repository of information regarding incidents of campus sexual assaults undoubtedly will assist researchers in this area (Klein, et al., 2018). 
Institutional practices also can be enhanced if additional research is conducted to assist in enforcement, by exploring and identifying whether written and expected procedures are actually followed in the event a grievance is filed.  One way to accomplish this type of study is to repoll exiting students to determine if those students were subjects, witnesses, or complainants in campus disciplinary proceedings, and whether participating students concluded that procedural due process was extended to them.  Exit surveys also would be helpful in determining whether new student training resonated with students throughout their educational tenures, in order to determine if follow up preventive courses should be offered on a reoccurring basis, to reinforce institutional encouragement for all students to “stand up, step in, and speak out when they see unsettling actions or scenarios” (Zapp, et al., 2018, p. 18).


Fedina, L., Holmes, J.L. & Backes, B. L. (2018).  Campus sexual assault: a systematic review of prevalence research from 2000 to 2015.  Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 19(1): 76-93. DOI: 10.1177/1524838016631129
Jozkowski, K. N. & Wiersma-Mosley, J. D. (2017). The Greek system: how gender inequality and class privilege perpetuate rape culture. Family Relations, Feb. 2017: 89-103.  DOI:10.1111/fare.12229.
Klein, L., Graham, L. M., Treves-Kagan, S., Deck, P. G., DeLong, S. M. & Martin, S. L. (2018).  Leveraging data to strengthen campus sexual assault policies. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(21) 3298-3314.  DOI: 10.1177/0886260518798351
Konradi, A. (2017).  Can justice be served on campus? The examination of due process and victim protection policies in the campus adjudication of sexual assault in Maryland.  Humanity & Society, 41(3):373-404.  DOI: 10.1177/0160597616651657
Moore, B.M. & Baker, T. (2018). An exploratory examination of college students’ likelihood of reporting sexual assault to police and university officials: results of a self-report survey.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(220):3419-3438.  DOI: 10.1177/0886260516632357
Zapp, D., Buelow, R. Soutiea, L., Berkowitz, A. & DeJong, W. (2018). Exploring the potential campus-level impact of online universal sexual assault prevention education.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence.  1-22. DOI: 10.1177/0886260518762449

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