Lyndsay Jones’ first-person account is striking because of her willingness to share her story on the record with her name and photo. By talking openly about a subject that is normally cloaked in anonymity, she shines a light on difficult issues of sexual assault that are common across college campuses.
Midway through her first semester on the Bloomington campus, she trusted a male friend — another student — who she says raped her in his apartment. After reporting the incident to the Bloomington Police Department, Lyndsay became so disillusioned with the attitude of the officers and detectives that she withdrew her complaint.
When Lyndsay reported the sexual assault to the Office of Student Ethics, she wanted justice, she said. She was devastated when the hearing panel reached a decision of no finding, choosing not to discipline her alleged perpetrator.
The man Lyndsay accuses of raping her is still an undergraduate student at IU.
The issues raised by Lyndsay’s account are especially relevant now, when the U.S. Department of Education is investigating IU for its handling of sexual assault complaints.
How is consent defined, by the University and by students? How qualified are the staff members who sit in judgment on these cases? How fair are IU’s ethics hearings and investigations, both to the accuser and the accused? Can the University provide the justice that Lyndsay and others seek?
The questions at the heart of Lyndsay’s account cannot be ignored.
It is an especially important time to analyze the way IU handles sexual assaults. In May 2014, IU was revealed as one of more than 50 schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for possible violations of Title IX, a federal law that in part dictates how universities should handle sexual misconduct complaints. Emily Springston, chief student welfare and Title IX officer, said IU was chosen randomly for the review, and there was not a specific complaint that led to the investigation.
“My guess would be they’re trying to do a good cross section of different types of schools,” Springston said.
However, a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education said these reviews are not random. While he did not share what specifically led to IU’s review, a spokesperson said these investigations can be initiated based on statistical data on sexual assaults, individual allegations and prior complaints filed to a university.
Sexual assault is a complicated crime that is often under-reported. According to a White House Task Force report, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while on a college campus. If that projection is true at IU-Bloomington, with a female population of over 18,000, over 3,700 of those women will be a victim of sexual assault on IU’s campus.
The University insists it takes the cases that reach them seriously. According to Office of Student Ethics records obtained by the Indiana Daily Student between July 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2013, 195 sexual misconduct cases were reported to the Office of Student Ethics, and 53 of those cases led to a hearing. Two cases resulted in deferred suspension of the accused, 20 ended in expulsion and 22 led to suspension.
Nine cases, including Lyndsay’s, resulted in no finding against the accused.
When making decisions on cases, the Office of Student Ethics rules based on a preponderance of the evidence presented. If 50.01 percent of the evidence shows the respondent is responsible, serious sanctions can be imposed on the student, said Jason Casares, assistant dean of students and director, deputy Title IX coordinator. However, when a student is not found responsible, like in Lyndsay’s case, no sanctions are imposed.
“We’re not saying that nothing happened,” Casares said. “We just didn’t have enough information to meet the burden of proof.”
Intensive interview processes are held with the respondent, the complainant and any witnesses. Panel members volunteer from different campus departments serve on hearing panels. Currently, 23 staff members from the Bloomington campus serve as panel members, more than half of whom work for Residential Programs and Services. The rest come from the Student Union, the Kelley School of Business, Student Life and Learning and Emergency Management and Continuity, as well as the Office of Student Ethics.
In order to serve on these hearing panels, staff members must complete more than 50 hours of training, including reading material on sexual assault research and attending in-person seminars taught by professionals who work with sexual assault victims.
This training is more comprehensive than the two-hour training mandated before 2011. That same year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter to college administrations across the country, stating universities’ obligations in responding to sexual violence.
Debbie Melloan, a licensed clinical social worker for IU Counseling and Psychological Services, has taught seminars at these training sessions. She said while training is important, human nature can still play a role in the decision-making process. If panel members have never been in situations where they have felt a loss of control, they could reach inaccurate conclusions, she said.
“People tend to just react out of their own life experiences,” Melloan said.
The University defines consent as an “agreement or permission expressed through affirmative, voluntary words or actions that are mutually understandable to all parties involved.” This means that a verbal “yes” clearly understood by both parties signifies consent. In cases lacking a verbal “yes,” Casares said there are some actions that could also express consent. He said panel members analyze these actions on a case-by-case basis.
Melloan said she sees a great deal of miscommunication in these cases.
“One person might assume that person is interested in them sexually without it ever being discussed,” she said.
Melloan said it is typical for victims to freeze in the moment of their assault, as Lyndsay did. She said this frozen mentality usually comes when a victim is being assaulted in a situation where they thought they were safe, such as when the perpetrator is a friend.
“They could be intimidated or too impaired to be able to speak up,” Melloan said. “That could stop them from saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Problems with communication are not limited to consent. When Lyndsay initially reported a sexual assault, the police instructed her to respond casually to her alleged perpetrator if he ever reached out to her after the incident. The detective wanted to see if she could get him to admit any remorse for that night or indicate that he knew the sex was not consensual.
While she continued talking to him, Lyndsay remembers almost longing for the friendship they had before the incident. This response is not uncommon, said Rene Henry, assistant director of the Student Advocates program. The trauma of a rape, Henry explains, can affect victims in unusual ways, and victims might feel like reaching out to their rapists to help them make sense of their assault.
“Every person has their unique responses to what happens,” Henry said. “They’re all normal reactions to abnormal situations.”
Since the announcement of the Title IX investigation, IU has made strides to improve its platform on sexual assault awareness and prevention. But the University’s hearing process draws mixed reactions from people who work with victims.
Toby Strout, executive director of Middle Way House, works with victims of sexual and domestic violence in the Bloomington community. Strout said many students she works with are unhappy with IU’s process. She often sees them leaving the campus system feeling tarnished.
“They feel that they’re going to go through a long period of recovery, and that they end up carrying a burden from somebody else’s criminal intent,” she said.
Jawn Bauer has worked on and off as a volunteer attorney for Middle Way House for nearly 25 years, providing legal consultation and representation for victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Bauer has found it is important to remain patient with clients to help them become comfortable enough to speak openly.
“This is a person that has been traumatized, and you have to empathize with that,” Bauer said. “You have to understand that it may cause them problems in communication.”
Strout said she does not believe the University should be hearing these cases. But she understands the University may have no choice.
“The University operates more like a business,” she said. “It’s not in its best interest to make it clear how much sexual assault there is on campus. For that reason, they should take people out of the process for whom that’s going to be paramount.”
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