Crimes of sexual violence are becoming more and more prevalent at today's colleges and universities. In fact, one in five women are sexually assaulted in college, most often during freshman or sophomore year, according to the 2014 White House Report. Men can also be the victim of sexual assault on college campuses.
The term sexual assault encompasses multiple actions, including any sexual contact that is forced on an individual without their consent. In 75-80% of cases, the victim knows her attacker (a friend, classmate, ex-boyfriend or acquaintance).
On college campuses, many victims of sexual assault or rape are survivors of "incapacitated assault," which means that they are abused while drugged, passed out, drunk or incapacitated in some other way that makes legal consent to sex impossible.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Rape and sexual assault are historically underreported across the United States. When it comes to assaults on college campuses, underreporting is even more of a problem. According to the Campus Sexual Assault Study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, only 13% of victims of forcible rape report the crime to local police or campus security. Even more staggering is that a mere 2% of survivors of incapacitated assault survivors report the crime.
Unlike victims of most other crimes, many victims of sexual assault and rape blame themselves, making it even harder for them to view what happened to them as a crime that they should report. Still other reasons listed for not reporting include not knowing to whom to make a report , belief that nobody will believe their side of the story, embarrassment and shame, not wanting family and friends to know what happened, and fear of being treated poorly by the school or the police, to name a few.
Perhaps even more distressing than the huge problem of underreporting is hearing of students who have reached out to their school administration and been told they should "just put it all behind" them. In such a climate as this, it is easy to see why crimes of sexual violence are underreported.
THE NEGATIVE IMPACT ON THE VICTIM
Sexual assault victims suffer from serious and often lifelong physical and emotional injuries. For a college student, specifically, it may cause an interruption in academic studies. The student's inability to concentrate on schoolwork, or their inability to go to class at all, can cause a dramatic drop in grades. A victim may be physically unable to participate in sports activities, a fact that could result in the loss of a scholarship and severe distress or depression. The assault may inevitably cause them to drop out of school.
Unfortunately, there are times when victimization does not end with the initial crime. Negligence on the part of the school in failing to follow best practices and Title IX regulations in dealing with the assailant can cause the victim to feel violated all over again.
Below are some of the after-effects of rape and sexual assault experienced by survivors:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal)
- Disassociation and denial
- Anxiety or depression
- Feelings of shock and disbelief
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Fear and paranoia
- Feeling "numb"
- Anger and sadness
- Insomnia and fatigue
HOW IS A COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY RESPONSIBLE FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Whether or not a survivor of sexual assault is able to receive justice in the criminal system, she may have a valid claim for damages in the civil courts. There are several ways that a college can be held liable for a victim's damages:
- Liability for acts of their employees;
- Negligent security;
- Failure to protect students in on-campus housing;
- Failing to comply with laws and best practices in handling sexual violence on campus;
- Providing a climate for assaultive crime; and
UNDERSTANDING RESPONDEAT SUPERIOR
In the event that the sexual assault involved an employee of the school (a professor, student advisor, resident advisor, etc.), the school may be responsible through a legal doctrine known as "respondeat superior." Basically, this doctrine states that in various circumstances, an employer is responsible for the actions of their employees that are performed or committed in the course of the individual's employment.
This doctrine potentially comes into play in cases of sexual violence on campus in various circumstances. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect their students in on-campus housing. There is, first, an overall duty to exercise reasonable care in preventing harm to those who the college is providing services to (the students). Colleges, however, can be held to an even higher duty of care, requiring that they do even more than just what is "reasonable" to protect their students from harm, particularly in their dorm rooms.
WHO IS HELD LIABLE?
Institutions of higher education can also be held liable for a sexual assault survivor's injuries if they have fostered a climate for assaultive crime. On a college campus, several factors can contribute to a climate that may lead to assaultive crime.
These can include but are not limited to:
- Lacking proper alcohol and drug enforcement policies.
- Failure of campus security to follow and enforce policies.
- Allowing parties with underage drinking to be "the norm."
- Failing to prosecute those who violate alcohol and drug rules.
- Placing predators in positions of trust (as resident advisors or peer advisors.)
ABOUT THE CAMPUS SECURITY ACT
Colleges and universities may also be responsible for a campus sexual assault survivor's injuries and damages if the school engaged in fraud, or concealing certain crimes, such as instances of sexual assault. Known first as the Campus Security Act, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the "Clery Act") (20 USC § 1092(f)) is a landmark federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses. The law applies to most public and private colleges and universities and is enforced by the United States Department of Education.
Under the reporting requirements of the Clery Act, schools must prepare, publish and distribute (upon request) an annual security report that contains statistics regarding the occurrence of crime on campus. This must be sent to all students, employees, applicants for admission, and applicants for employment.
If prospective students and their parents request information about crimes of sexual violence, colleges and universities must provide accurate statistics so that the students can make informed decisions about where to attend school. If schools fail to provide truthful and accurate information (including Clery Act information), or provide misleading information, they may have committed fraud and may be liable if a student who relied on that misinformation is assaulted.
FINDINGS OF THE MCCASKILL SENATE REPORT
Schools can also be held liable for their failure to properly handle the aftermath of a college sexual assault. In 2014, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill requested an in-depth study be done to assess how colleges and universities report, investigate, and adjudicate acts of sexual violence. The resulting report, "Sexual Violence on Campus: How Too Many Institutions of Higher Education are Failing to Protect Students," was published in July of 2014 and reviewed 440 colleges and universities and incorporated information obtained through interviews and roundtable discussions. The McCaskill study indicates a serious problem at America's colleges and universities. Survey results showed that many colleges and universities are not complying with the law and known best practices with respect to how they handle crimes of sexual violence among students. The problems affect almost every stage of the institutions' responses to sexual violence.
Below are some of the highlights of the important and troubling findings from the McCaskill Senate report:
Reported sexual violence goes uninvestigated
- Lack of knowledge about the scope of the problem
- Failure to encourage reporting of sexual violence
- Lack of adequate sexual assault training
- Lack of adequate services for survivors
- Lack of trained, coordinated law enforcement
- Adjudication fails to comply with requirements and best practices
- Lack of coordinated oversight
HOW WE CAN HELP YOU
If you or a loved one has been the victim of a sexual assault or rape on a college campus, the Richmond civil litigation attorneys at the Halperin Law Center have the experience, knowledge, and compassion necessary to seek justice for you. You do not have to face this battle alone. We are tireless legal advocates for victims of rape and sexual assault in the civil justice system.
Contact us at (804) 220-0223 and let us put our experience to work for you while you focus on getting back to your life.
A proven track record of success in negotiating settlements and winning verdicts for our clients.