April 25, 2011

Sexual assault needs more attention on college campuses

Urging universities to implement stricter educational and safety practices to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, attorney Colby Bruno described the "ripple effect" that assault can have on a victim's life in a talk April 19 in Lewis Auditorium.

"In talking with victims and survivors, I find how high the stakes are for a victim to come forward," said Bruno, managing attorney at the Boston-based Victim Rights Law Center, the first nonprofit law center in the nation solely dedicated to serving the legal needs of rape and sexual assault victims. "Because it's not just about confronting the perpetrator, it's about facing the community. The victim usually gives up extracurriculars first, that effectively ices them out of social life. Not going to classes follows, [as does] being afraid to walk on campus and being hypersensitive to gossip, which runs rampant."

A University of Massachusetts survey of some 1,800 undergraduate men, Bruno said, found more than 120 men voluntarily admitted to 483 acts that "fell in the definition of rape or attempted rape." She added, "All men are not rapists. We all know this. But there is a small percentage of men who are serial rapists. [The survey] found that 63 percent of the male student offenders committed more than 90 percent of the rapes. A small portion of perpetrators are committing a whole ton of assaults."

Given this, Bruno conceded the difficulties faced by university administrators in dealing with reports of assault. Legal problems resulting from disciplinary action, she granted, might weaken colleges' resolve to fully defend accusations of sexual assault.

"But often what a school doesn't look at is, if we don't expel this person, what is the campus atmosphere going to look like?" Bruno said. "If you look at it through the lens of your social responsibilities, your choice is much easier. Your investigation of these situations has to have more depth; there needs to be a more objective process. ... This is a really hard thing for most college administrators to grapple with, that people on your campus who are 18 or 20 years old may be sexual predators."

Acknowledging a new set of directives laid out by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in a "Dear Colleague" letter expanding the jurisdiction of the Title IX law to mandate that universities fully investigate sexual assault allegations, Bruno expressed her hope that, "if all policies are in sync, now there might not be so many reasons for victims to not want to come forward, assuming that all these prevention practices and educational and safety practices came in play. If victims want to come forward and think their campus is a safe place to do so, there had to be accountability. And now they have a greater incentive to report assault."

Bruno's recommendations included encouraging Cornell to improve victims' ability to report assaults, to create a more effective supportive system for victims and to involve Cornell Police with judicial board training. She added that all community members be mindful of their rights in sexual situations.

"Terrible societal stereotypes of masculinity and femininity pervade these judgments that we make on victims," Bruno said. "Remember [that] you always have the right to revoke consent; on college campuses this is not very clear."

Bruno's talk was co-sponsored by Women in Public Policy, Diversity Alumni Affairs, the Panhellenic Council, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, and the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Programming Board.

Shashwat Samudra '14 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.