Sexual Assault on College Campuses: A Culture of Indifference

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Many college women say their experiences after being sexually assaulted -- often in date rape situations -- illustrate a culture of indifference and denial that results in one in five young women being assaulted during their college years. Unclear and conflicted internal disciplinary systems can compound their suffering, according to this series by InvestigateWest journalists Carol Smith and Lee van der Voo and edited by Rita Hibbard.

Stephanie S. reported being sexually assaulted in a University of Washington dorm room in 2001.
Credit: Dan DeLong/Special to InvestigateWest

Athletic club weekend weekend turns into nightmare for college freshman
But her ordeal brings change to state system

Emily Lorenzen turned to college administrators for help after she was hazed into drinking too much alcohol and woke up naked in bed next to a persistent upperclassman whose advances she had spurned. She found a lack of concern and a desire to protect the university, and says the college investigation and disciplinary process victimized her again. But the experience spurred her father, then head of the board of higher education in the state of Oregon, to begin making changes in that state that could have long-ranging impact for young victims like Emily in the future.

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Colleges ‘in denial’ about campus sexual assault problem, advocates say
Reporting system fragmented and unclear

One reason the frequency of sexual assault on campuses continues to be high is that schools are in denial about the scope of the problem, say advocates and victims. In addition, universities have fragmented reporting channels, and women report assaults in various ways – they may call the police, tell a friend or faculty member, go to the hospital or seek counseling at the sexual assault center.

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Overwhelmed and unsure, victims often delay seeking help
Discipline meted out to accused often light or nonexistent

The story of a frustrating search for justice through an unclear and conflicted college disciplinary system is compellingly told through the experiences of two women who reported being raped on campus. Both women say the schools’ handling of their cases compounded their trauma, and both point to insensitive handling that ranged from inappropriate questioning to being required to go through mediation sitting near the man they had accused. Discipline for the alleged perpetrators was light or nonexistent, and left both angered that students who suffer sexual assaults by other students are often left to bear the emotional, physical and financial consequences, while those they hold responsible for their anguish walk away.

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A dangerous mix: drinking, sex and college students
62 percent of sexual assaults are ‘drug-facilitated’

A majority of sexual assaults involving college students also involve drugs or alcohol. Advocates say this is one reason the prevalence rate of assaults continues to be high, and also partly why so few are ever successfully prosecuted.

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Barriers to reporting sexual assault in same gender cases even higher

Sexual assault crosses all barriers, gender included, and same-gender assaults are not uncommon on college campuses, experts say, but the obstacles to reporting are even greater.

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Further Reading

Sexual Assault Resources

About the project

What happened to one young woman who reported being sexually assaulted on a college athletic club trip and another who reported being raped by a college athlete she casually dated is not unique -- their lives fell apart, and the men they accused suffered little or no consequences, InvestigateWest journalists reveal in this series. We show the high prevalence of drugs and alcohol in sexual assaults, the lack of training provided to students to recognize and deal with date-rape and non-consensual sexual situations, and the murky and sometimes conflicting disciplinary processes in place.

The series is launched in concert with, KUOW-FM,the Spokane Spokesman-Review and The Oregonian. This work was done in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity in a project that includes NPR and regional campus assault stories from four other members of the Investigative News Network - the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Texas Watchdog, and the Rocky Mountain News Network.

These stories illustrate the power of working together. Many of the young women whose stories are told here initially thought they stood alone; when their voices are joined as they are in a project of this magnitude, the scope of the problem begins to be visible. Read this groundbreaking work here, and remember that without your support for independent investigative reporting, this kind of work cannot be done.


Photo credits:

Christopher Anderson, The Spokesman-Review
Dan DeLong, Red Box Pictures
Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News
Dan Miller, Combine Photo
Lee van der Voo, special to InvestigateWest


Common sense & punishment with teeth

As an undergraduate student in the late 70's & early 80's I know now that I had a sense of what was safe and what was not. In my 4.5 years of undergrad studies, I walked and ran (as a distance runner) all over campus and the community without incident. I also was careful to not drink to a point that I could not be aware of what I was doing or my surroundings. Albeit the bottom line - it was safer back then, without a doubt. It is shocking today the disregard for human life and dignity, not to mention the complete lack of moral boundaries. That aside though, one must use common sense. Getting falling down drunk in the company of many people of whom you do not know is down right stupid and highly risky. From what I have read many of the reported incidences involved partying, alcohol & drugs. Since we can't turn back the clock instantly to re-establish a more moral and considerate society, people need to use their brains and avoid situations that would put them into a precarious situation that could lead to rape. Along with that, rape victims need to take courage and report the crimes against them and we need to lobby for the strictest possible penalties for such offenses.

Its not all about making poor decisions

Most girls do raise the risk of sexual assault by drinking or being in situations that raise their chances of being assaulted and this does not make it their fault. However, some girls try to avoid situations that increase their chances of being assaulted and it happens anyway. I know of a young student who did not go out drinking or hang out with party crowds; however, she went out with a young man as friends to a movie. After the movie he did not take her back to her dorm as she had intended he took her somewhere secluded and raped her. She had not had a sexual experience before and was devastated. the experience caused her to enter a severe depression and she ended up withdrawing from the semester early and went home. We need to change our generation of young men. They are not compassionate or protective of the young ladies they are around and that is a sad regression in our society.