Campus Rape Victims Find a Voice

With students headed back to school, a coalition of students and activists are coming together to change how universities handle sexual assault

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Student activists launched Know Your IX, which provides information on students' Title IX rights, on Tuesday.

One December night in 2010, Tucker Reed and her then-boyfriend of two weeks attended a party hosted by fellow students at the University of Southern California. When the couple arrived back at Reed’s apartment, Reed later said, her then-boyfriend, at that point drunk, forced her to have sex as Reed repeatedly denied consent, according to Reed.  Reed said she didn’t realize that her experience was rape until much later, and she filed with university authorities in 2012.

Reed said she gave the school a recording of then-boyfriend admitting the rape. The school dismissed her case citing a lack of evidence. The proceedings were like a second rape, Reed said.

“I started blogging about my experiences inspired by the feeling that I had been so alone when I was going through this originally,” Reed said. “I Googled ‘raped by my boyfriend,’ and really couldn’t find anything that was applicable to my situation.”

Since Reed started writing, she has gathered a group of over 100 other U.S.C. students who have similar stories of administrative neglect. They filed a formal complaint against the school to the Department of Education this May, and the department’s Office of Civil Rights has since opened an investigation into the school.

That investigation has joined scores of others that are stacking up against universities across the nation. Two weeks ago, Cedarville University, a Christian college in Cedarville, Ohio, was the latest to join U.S.C. and 27 other schools currently under scrutiny for sexual violence-related Title IX violations, including Dartmouth College, the University of North Carolina, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

By the end of July, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had received 48 complaints regarding Title IX violations related to sexual violence–more complaints than it had received in any full recent year, according to department spokesman Jim Bradshaw. Though Title IX is commonly associated with creating opportunities for women in sports, its original passage by Congress in 1972 also concerned sexual harassment in schools, and by extension, sexual assault.

(MORE: As Students Prepare To Return, Yale Faces New Scrutiny For Rape Policy)

Most experts say that the rate of campus sexual assault has largely remained constant: one-quarter to one-fifth of college women will experience rape or attempted rape before graduating. The recent outpouring of complaints from students across the country, they say, isn’t because campus sexual assaults are on the rise, but due to the steadily rising level of organization and activism among survivors.

Campus sexual assault is notoriously under-reported. According to a Department of Justice study based on surveys of over 4,000 female students, at a school of 10,000 female students, around 350 or more will become victims of rape. Meanwhile, in 2011, the University of Southern California – a school with around 40,000 students – reported 15 total sexual assaults surrounding all nine of its campuses. The University of Colorado, Boulder, which is also under federal investigation and has more than 30,000 students, lists six incidents.

In the fall of 2012, Amherst College student paper, The Amherst Student, published an article written by former student Angie Epifano, which described her alleged rape in a dormitory and consequent struggles with campus administrators.

Epifano’s raw account became so popular that the newspaper’s website crashed, overburdened by visitors. Victims at other colleges began talking, writing and tweeting about their own experiences.

“Their stories are always the same,” said Caroline Heldman, a professor at Occidental College and co-complainant against the college for Title IX violations. “Yes, my rape was bad, but the college is not treating me well.”

(MORE: Whither Goes Free Speech at Harvard?)

Victims are coalescing into an informal student movement joined across campuses with the help of social media. Calling themselves the “IX Network,” the survivors consult with each other as they file complaints against their schools or lobby their college administrations for change. On Tuesday morning, many of those involved in the network launched the website Know Your IX, which provides guidance for those interested in filing complaints against their schools.

“It became this kind of chain reaction of survivors hearing other men and women’s stories and deciding that enough was enough, and that it was time to stand up and really do something about it,” said Amherst senior Dana Bolger, who is a co-coordinator for Know Your IX.

The student movement is being matched by increased vigilance on the part of the federal government and universities, said Brett Sokolow, the president and CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, which consults and represents campuses for issues including Title IX.

The Department of Education has released a handful of documents in recent years intending to more clearly guide schools’ implementation of Title IX, and Congress passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act at the end of February.

But higher education watchers worry that universities have a reason to drag their heels on becoming more vigilant when it comes to assault on campus: a significant spike in the number of rapes reported on campus could scare away applicants and damage the school’s reputation.

“The national movement is so important because if only a few people are telling the truth, if only a few campuses are telling the truth, it will hurt them,” Heldman says. “But if everyone starts telling the truth, then we have a radical rethinking of higher education.”

As more complaints and investigations arise, universities will be forced to modify their adjudication and reporting procedures. One thing is clear: schools have a new, powerful force to answer to beyond the federal government.

When Reed posted her experiences to her blog, called Covered in Bandaids, sharing those stories gave her a new feeling of agency over her own experiences. “I went public with the fact that this happened to me and I wasn’t ashamed of it, and I felt instantly better,” she says. “It became something that happened to me that I wasn’t carrying around like a secret shame.”

MORE: It’s Not Just Yale: Are Colleges Doing Enough to Combat Sexual Violence?