Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - UI must keep making progress on sex assaults

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 8, 2009

Our View - UI must keep making progress on sex assaults

It doesn't give us much comfort to know that the University of Iowa's official response to an alleged sexual assault in 2007 really wasn't that far off the mark for what seems to be a "culture of secrecy" at work at university campuses across the nation. That's what a Washington-based investigative journalism organization, the Center for Public Integrity, found to be case in a report it issued last week.

The Center for Public Integrity showed that nearly half of the 33 female students it interviewed in the past year about being raped were unsuccessful in pursuing criminal charges. While that clearly wasn't the case in regards to the 2007 incident in which a UI student accused two Hawkeye football players of assaulting her in a UI dorm, the center found that the one recourse for the students who were unsuccessful in pursing criminal charges were their campus judiciary systems.

Kristen Lombardi, lead reporter on the nine-month investigation, said those victims faced "proceedings that are shrouded in secrecy, where they encounter mysterious disciplinary proceedings, where they themselves are shut out of the hearing process,"

Lombardi also said that nearly a third of the 33 victims reported school administrators discouraged them from pursuing complaints, and about a dozen experienced confidentiality requirements "sometimes followed by threats of punishment if they were to disclose any information about the case."

The good news is that UI already has begun the process of addressing the same criticisms identified in the report. The 2007 allegations have led to an overhaul of the policies and procedures of the entire public university system in Iowa -- but only after two separate investigations and the firing of two senior UI officials for their roles in handling the case.

The bad news is that current economic concerns seem to have moved efforts to update additional polices to the back burner. UI officials still have a ways to go to address all the concerns raised by the 2007 incident.

"One of the things we've been working on at UI has been to send a message from the very top down that sexual assault won't be tolerated and back it up with not only having good policies and implementation of those policies," said Karla Miller, director of the UI-based Rape Victim Advocacy Program. "There are many good things going on, but there is still more work to be done."

The worst news, of course, is that the 33 students interviewed for the public integrity study represent only a small fraction of the sexual assault cases at campuses nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education's office of post-secondary education said there were 2,532 forcible sex offenses in campuses in 2007.

A 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department, found that one in five women on a college campus will be the victim of rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates.

While UI officials understandably are focused on economic concerns at this time, we hope the center's report helps push the next stages of the policy reviews and other responses back onto the front burner. After all, poor economic conditions surely aren't helping to decrease the incidents of sexual assault on campus. Data from the RVAP Web site shows that, between July 1 and Sept. 30, 11 people connected to UI reported being raped.

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