By Stacy St. Clair, Jodi S. Cohen and Todd Lighty, Tribune reporters
4:15 AM EDT, June 18, 2011
When a 19-year-old University of Notre Dame freshman first went to campus police to file a sexual assault report in late November, she did so reluctantly and at her parents' urging.
Authorities complied with her request not to open an investigation, in part because she didn't want to draw attention to herself or risk angering the accused attacker and his friends by pursuing charges. He lived in a nearby dorm and his residence hall was the epicenter of her social life, too.
But months later, when several men who lived in his dorm promised to stick by her if she pursued the matter with the university's administration, the woman quietly brought her complaint to the campus disciplinary committee — and what she found surprised her.
As part of a two-tiered justice system offered at colleges and universities nationwide, administrative hearings are designed to provide students with an alternative justice process that is less demanding than the legal system. Students can seek resolution through the administrative and police tracks simultaneously, though the internal process carries a lower burden of proof, meaning victims theoretically would have an easier time making their case at campus hearings.
Though victim advocates champion the hearings as an important way for students to seek justice, national statistics suggest women who opt for the internal process face disappointing outcomes nearly as often as those who go through law enforcement. They also can grapple with the same feelings of humiliation, frustration and loneliness endured by women who seek help from police and prosecutors.
In the Notre Dame case, the woman described the process as unresponsive and uncaring, complaints similar to the ones voiced by women who reported their crimes to police. She felt as if she were the one on trial, not the acquaintance she accused.
"It's the same thing, again and again," she said. "Girls are still getting victimized and guys are still walking away."
After a tense, two-hour administrative hearing in April, the panel of three administrators found the male student "not responsible" for the alleged offense. He told the Tribune that their interaction was consensual and that the case boiled down to his word against hers.
And he, too, described a grueling process in which he placed his future in the hands of university administrators and prayed they would make the right decision. He feared getting suspended or expelled.
"I wasn't able to sleep most nights," the male student said. "My entire career was up in the air with three people I didn't know. I was scared out of my mind."
Since the hearing, the female student continues to see a counselor, who she says initially warned her against filing an administrative complaint because the decisions rarely go in the woman's favor. She shudders when she runs into her alleged attacker on campus. Though he never says anything to her, she said, his friends once called her a "slut" and a "whore" when they passed her in a stairwell.
"I thought it would bring me some peace" to have the hearing, the female student told the Tribune last month. "In a lot of ways, it made things worse."
Notre Dame administrators hear about four cases involving sexual misconduct each year, university spokesman Dennis Brown said. He declined to say how many of the cases are decided in the woman's favor.
The Tribune has confirmed at least three hearings during the most recent school year. The panel ruled in the accused student's favor each time, a common outcome at colleges across the country, experts say.
"Notre Dame is well known for setting very high standards for its students," Brown said. "Whenever a student is accused of falling short of these high standards of conduct — whether an allegation of criminal behavior, a violation of the university code of conduct, or both — we institute a thorough, deliberate and thoughtful process to investigate and adjudicate the case in a timely manner, ensuring that both the complainant and accused student are given appropriate support."
Even in cases where the nation's universities find men "responsible" for sexual assault, they are rarely kicked out, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Only 10 to 25 percent are permanently expelled, the study found.
The expulsion rates are in keeping with the arrest and conviction rates on the law-enforcement track, a Tribune analysis shows. After surveying six major Midwestern universities, the Tribune found that the schools made one arrest for about every 14 alleged sex crimes reported on campus. The conviction rate of those arrested was 33 percent.
Experts say the results — from both the law-enforcement and administrative tracks — reflect a system overseen by educators who, by nature, want to help students better themselves.
"Universities tend to view these cases as misbehavior, as teaching moments," said David Lisak, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus and an expert on campus violence. "Two students have a conflict and this is how we handle the conflict rather than dealing with it as a criminal problem."
At Illinois State University, 13 students have been disciplined for sexual misconduct violations under the Code of Student Conduct since 2005. Two students were disciplined since mid-May — one who exposed himself to a female student and another who tried to get in bed with a student in an off-campus apartment.
Discipline at ISU ranges from probation to dismissal depending on the student's disciplinary history, the severity of the incident and what the victim would like to happen. The student who exposed himself, for example, was put on probation and has to complete an alcohol education program and write a letter of apology, university spokesman Jay Groves said.
McLean County State's Attorney Bill Yoder, whose jurisdiction includes Illinois State, said sexual-offense cases "should be pushed toward criminal prosecution whenever the facts support it." He's concerned victims are steered toward pursuing the disciplinary route instead.
"The schools are protective of their reputation, and if it is that, it is terrible that they are pursuing only the school sanctions," he said.
At the University of Illinois, a dozen students have been disciplined for sex offenses since the 2005-06 school year. Seven were dismissed from campus and five were put on probation. An additional nine cases went through the system: Two students were found not responsible, and in seven cases the charges were dropped because the victim didn't cooperate or there wasn't enough evidence.
The Urbana-Champaign campus police have handled 19 sexual assault reports in that period, but campus police Chief Barbara O'Connor said victims sometimes are more comfortable working through the school disciplinary process.
"It might be multiple reasons — (the woman doesn't) want him to have a record, more confidential, less adversarial, not covered by the news," O'Connor said.
At Indiana University in Bloomington, 24 students have been disciplined for sex offenses since the 2005 school year. Only one who went through the disciplinary system was cleared of wrongdoing, the school said.
Margaux Janda, however, questions just how severe some of those punishments were. The suburban Chicago woman filed a complaint with a campus judicial panel in spring 2006, accusing a fellow student of raping her in her dorm room after both had been drinking, according to documents.
University officials initially wanted to suspend him for the rest of the spring and entire summer terms.
"I felt like they hadn't heard a word that was said in the hearing," Janda said. "They told me that (the accused student) had cried and they had seen it as a breakthrough. I thought, 'OK, but what about me? What about my tears?' I guess I don't matter."
Documents show the administrator who oversaw the hearing was moved by the male student's admission of personal struggles.
The administrator wrote in his recommendation that "through his self-discovery today I believe he still has hope and I want to try to support that."
IU eventually suspended the student for a year and Janda filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which found the university acted "promptly and appropriately."
"I can understand the very real emotional distress sexual assault causes. But the criticism of IU — and I suspect most other universities — is misguided," Indiana spokesman Larry MacIntyre said. "We cannot just assume that every male accused of sexual assault is automatically guilty. We must investigate every case in a way that ensures both parties get a fair and just outcome. And the fact is, our dean of students staff and our IU Police Department are very good at doing just that."
The male student could not be reached for comment. He told school officials he and Janda had consensual sex, documents show.
Janda left the school shortly after the hearing.
Several private schools declined to provide the outcomes of disciplinary cases, and the law does not obligate them to do so. However, a bill pending in Congress would require campuses to make those numbers public.
Increased transparency could make college administrators feel more accountable to students who file complaints, said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy at Security on Campus, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce violent crime at colleges. But even without changes to the federal law, victim advocates say, the college justice system is a needed option to the equally imperfect law enforcement route.
"The process isn't perfect," Carter said. "But the basis for having it is sound."
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