Beta House

Wesleyan's Beta Theta Pi house, site of some recent controversy. (Photo courtesy / October 16, 2012)

It's the stuff of a hideous higher-ed Halloween nightmare: sexual assault, campus fear, rape-culture environments, an ugly federal lawsuit against a prestigious institution, and an ongoing national crisis of violence against women.

Earlier this month, a former Wesleyan University student filed suit against that school and one of its fraternities. "Jane Doe" accuses the school of failing to protect her from a rape that occurred during a 2010 Halloween-weekend party at the Beta Theta Pi house, and charges the school totally mishandled her case afterward.

The lawsuit and the unproven claim that Wesleyan's Beta house was known as a "rape factory" have drawn widespread media attention.

Far more attention, perhaps, than the alleged frat house sexual assault that occurred at a Florida State University a few weeks ago. Or last year's rape case involving a University of Vermont fraternity. Or the sexual assault on a woman at the University of Idaho earlier this month. Or the woman who reported being raped at a Western Connecticut State University dorm on Sept. 30th. Or any of the scores of other campus rape cases that occur on a horrifyingly regular basis at colleges and universities.

"Every university deals with the problem of sexual assaults on campus," says Kathleen Holgerson, director of the University of Connecticut's Women's Center. "The issue impacts campuses across the board."

In 2011, according to federally required reports on campus crime, Yale University had 37 cases of "forceable sexual offenses." Wesleyan reported 8 such cases. Uconn listed 8 sexual assaults. Connecticut State University campuses in New Haven, Danbury, New Britain and Willimantic reported at least nine instances of sexual violence.

The trouble is, that is almost certainly just the tiniest tip of a monstrously large iceberg of campus rape.

A 2010 investigative series by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR found clear evidence that colleges and universities have routinely underreported sexual assault on their campuses.

"We found a huge discrepancy in the numbers" between official statistics and the number of campus sexual assaults actually reported to counseling agencies, college officials, support groups and rape crisis clinics, says Kristen Lombardi, a staff reporter with the Center for Public Integrity who worked on the series. "The vast majority of schools across the nation report zero sexual assaults."

The hidden nature of the sexual-assault-on-campus issue becomes even more frightening when you consider that, according to the FBI, something like 75 percent of all female sexual assault victims never report the crime to authorities.

"It's probably actually higher than that," says Holgerson. She explains that, when you factor in "acquaintance rape" (sexual assault by a fellow student or friend), "the number goes up to one in 100 that is actually reported."

That investigative series also found institutions of higher education frequently failed to expel students found to have committed sexual crimes, handing out "slaps on the wrist" such as a one-semester suspension or a year's delay in getting a diploma. Victims were often given little support, and many colleges and university administrations habitually wrapped sex assault cases in blankets of secrecy that hamper reform.

Most college rape cases involve student-on-student violence, which makes the Wesleyan incident a bit out of the ordinary.

Jane Doe was a freshman when she was raped at a Beta house party, and says in her lawsuit she was unaware of a warning for students to stay away from that fraternity issued by Wesleyan authorities the previous spring.

(Wesleyan students are casting doubt on the lawsuit's claim that Beta house was routinely referred to on campus as a "rape factory." Several told BuzzFeed that Beta house had a somewhat sleazy rep, but not much worse than some other Wesleyan frats. The fraternity had been in trouble with the university for security issues well before the 2010 rape.)

The man charged in the case was John O'Neill, who was at the time a 21-year-old non-Wesleyan student from Yorktown, N.Y., described as a "guest" of a Beta house member. He pleaded no contest this past June to third-degree sexual assault (a misdemeanor charge) and first-degree unlawful restraint (a felony). O'Neill is now in the state's Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers serving a 15-month sentence.

Jane Doe says she was harassed by supporters of Beta house after the university withdrew recognition of the fraternity for student housing. She eventually left Wesleyan and transferred to another school.

Wesleyan officials say they can't comment on anything to do with that case or the problem of campus rape in general "due to the pending litigation."

Holgerson says various studies have shown that some fraternities create "rape culture environments." But she adds that they aren't the only male-dominated social groups on campuses that get off by promoting attitudes and habits that encourage rape.

College women who report acquaintance rapes often find themselves ostracized by people who were friends with both the rapist and the victim.

"It's not unusual for survivors to be re-victimized for telling their stories," Holgerson says.

The Center for Public Integrity-NPR reports triggered outrage and a review by federal educational authorities. The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a new set of tougher guidelines for how institutions should handle and discipline cases of campus sexual assault.

Lombardi says most schools have been trying for the past year to get their ducks in a row to match the new federal guidelines. "But there has been push back," she says, explaining some schools appear reluctant to adopt the new, less-restrictive rules on determining when a rape has occurred.

That sort of administrative foot-dragging has led activists and their congressional supporters to propose legislation now before the U.S. House and Senate to mandate reforms on how colleges and universities handle the entire rape issue.

Holgerson doesn't support simplistic proposals such as permanently banning fraternities from all campuses because of the actions of a few. What is needed is a more comprehensive set of reforms, including education about what "true consent" really means, according to Holgerson.

She says what is needed are efforts to "get at the culture that supports sexual violence" on campus. And, she adds, any education program "has to absolutely go hand-in-hand with holding the perpetrators accountable."


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