Why Do Universities Handle Sexual Violence Reports?

By Elizabeth A. Armstrong

The media, activists, and the Department of Education continue to put pressure on universities to improve how they respond to sexual violence. Universities are engaged in a flurry of activities—hiring compliance officers, rolling out new educational programs, designing new web sites, hosting webinars for parents, rewriting student codes of conduct, creating hotlines for reporting sexual misconduct, and redesigning procedures for the investigation and adjudication of reported incidents. Some universities are working hard to be out in front of the issue. Others are struggling just to keep up. Some activists believe that this is a moment when real change might be possible. Others read university responses cynically, as just bureaucratic attempts to avoid legal liability.

My colleague Sandra Levitsky and have started a research project to document and explain university responses. The first question asked about this project is: “Why are universities involved at all? Shouldn’t the criminal justice system be adjudicating these crimes?”

“Title IX” is the short answer to this question. Universities are legally required to address sex discrimination on campus, which includes providing an educational environment free from sexual violence. It is a civil rights issue. The Department of Education toughened its stance in 2011 by releasing new guidance for universities to follow to prevent sexual violence from occurring and to respond to it if it does.

Attention to sexual violence as a violation of Title IX is new. But university regulation of student sexual conduct is not. Universities set expectations for student sexual conduct along with many other aspects of student behavior (e.g., vandalism, theft, cheating). Not regulating student sexual conduct would be inconsistent with both historical practice and how schools respond to other aspects of student behavior.

When sexual misconduct rises to the level of a criminal offense, it should ideally be handled as such in addition to being handled as a violation of a code of student conduct. The media sometimes suggest that universities try to prevent survivors from making criminal reports as a way to protect the university. This may happen at some schools, but our observations suggest that many universities are proactive about sharing information with police. In fact, some are concerned that universities are moving in the direction of being too enthusiastic about passing along information to police. If handled poorly, survivors may be re-victimized by losing control of sensitive information, without justice being served either on campus or in the criminal justice system. On the other hand, effective coordination between police and campus authorities has the potential to maximize the chance that perpetrators are held accountable by universities and convicted of criminal offenses. The bottom line is that universities committed to “getting it right” are not withholding information from police or discouraging criminal reports.

Universities also have a role to play because not all forms of sexual misconduct are criminal. However, these actions can still create a hostile educational environment. For example, a hostile climate could be created through repeatedly invading another’s personal space, posting slanderous material on social media, or drawing offensive images or words on a student’s whiteboard. In addition, the criminal justice system is not equipped to protect survivors against retaliation from the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s friends, or to provide accommodations to assist the survivor after an assault. The criminal justice system cannot work with professors to organize extensions for coursework or schedule modifications. These accommodations can help a survivor recover and succeed academically. Some accommodations can be made in advance of adjudicating a case, while others are only appropriate after a finding of responsibility, and thus require that universities adjudicate the case.

The process of overhauling college and university responses to sexual violence is still in its infancy. It will likely be years before it is possible to assess whether meaningful change has occurred, or whether this has just been another cycle of attention to a longstanding problem. Even if universities “get it right,” this does nothing to address the needs of those not in college when they are assaulted. Young people not enrolled in college may be more at risk of sexual or intimate partner more violence. Improving protections for college students might increase disparities between groups. This, combined with the fact expulsion is the most severe sanction universities can apply, suggests that pressure on universities to response more effectively to sexual violence should be accompanied by similar pressure on the criminal justice system.

More reading: here.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong is Professor of Sociology at University of Michigan. Her research interests include areas of sexuality, gender, culture, organizations, social movements, and higher education. Her 2013 book, with Laura T. Hamilton,  Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality can be found here. She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society


6 thoughts on “Why Do Universities Handle Sexual Violence Reports?

  1. This is really interesting but it does not convince me that campuses handling these major sexual assault cases in-house is wise. Precisely because “all they can do” is expel a student for sexual misconduct and also must be careful about not violating Title IX, colleges might very well be violating one student’s equal rights to an education by making a bogus decision in their kangaroo courts. The complaints and counter-complaints could be endless, and it’s a waste of University resources. The recent initiatives and compliance procedures do not explain why historically colleges handled sexual misconduct in-house.

    1. Dear Martha,

      Thank you for your response. It is difficult to take a case through the criminal justice system and thus one way schools can serve their students is by offering counseling, advocacy, and support to their students who choose to do so. If colleges develop sensitive support for survivors, the likelihood of survivors successfully navigating the criminal justice system may increase. In short, successful criminal cases may depend upon how schools respond. University and criminal responses are not mutually exclusive.

      Many schools are far from this point of offering effective support to students and bungle cases terribly. I have unfortunately heard of cases where the term “kangaroo court” you use is apt. Some schools–hopefully many–are rapidly reworking their procedures, building in due process protections for both parties at every step. Some are turning to a single investigator model. In this model, a trained investigator, often someone trained as an attorney, conducts the investigation and makes the decision about responsibility. There is no “court” making a decision, although often sanctions are decided by a board. Some schools may be turning to external investigators.

      And, yes, all of this is expensive and time-consuming. “Getting it right” may be something that only highly resourced schools can afford, and this may introduce yet another form of inequality into higher education.

      Sexual violence is expensive for families as well as schools. This recent NYT Op-Ed vividly highlighted the financial toll for families of sexual assault on campus:

      Given the terrible costs, prevention is key. A substantial part of what colleges are–or should be–doing to comply with Title IX and to “get it right” centers on education. To reduce violence, though, schools may have to make difficult decisions about the organization of student life–as some dearly loved traditions predictably produce sexual violence. For example, a recent study by a group of economists found that sexual assaults increase on the days of Division I football games.


      Thanks for your comment.



      1. Thanks for this wonderful reply. I too think prevention is where we need to put resources. Sadly, the current campus rape prevention education efforts are not data-driven ans aee themselves in need of moving beyond their traditional approaches, as Jill Cermele and I outlined in another G&S blog post here: https://gendersociety.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/whats-wrong-with-the-cdcs-public-health-model-for-rape-prevention/
        We all want women and men to get a good education free from crime. How best to do this is a huge debate, but Im glad to be in it with smart people like you!

      2. Dear Martha,

        I read your blog post. Excellent point. I am intrigued by Elemental, a program developed by Chadwick Menning and Mellisa Holtzman, that incorporates both self-defense training and a sociological analysis of gendered power asymmetries and context.

        2015 Menning, Chadwick L., and Mellisa Holtzman. “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health.

        And I’m sure you follow Jocelyn Hollander’s important work.

        I suspect one reason why there is hesitancy to endorse self-defense programs is that people fear that they could be read as victim-blaming — that is, both placing the responsibility for stopping assaults on victims and blaming those who fail to do so. I think the programs can be empowering, as you suggest, and framed in ways that clearly are not victim-blaming.

        Others argue that programs that teach individuals to resist won’t change the overall rate of violence, as the perpetrator will simply select a more vulnerable victim.



  2. It’s nice to see a thoughtful exchange on these issues for once! I think universities have just begun to really grapple with this issue in a thoughtful and holistic way. I think we are entering a second phase of sexual assault policy on campus that moves beyond offense reporting and response. While not fully embraced, approaches such as restorative justice are beginning to be developed as alternative ways to address the harm created through sexual assault and rape while also holding perpetrators accountable when the criminal justice system doesn’t work. Universities are late to the game, but they are moving. As a faculty member, I agree universities and colleges have to enter into this because it tangibly effects the educational climate.

    I think bystander education *and* intervention is critical in solving this problem. I like Green Dot programs but I think programs like Elemental are likely to have much longer lasting impacts. Self-Defense training using principles such as those in Elemental fundamentally change attitudes and behavior, not just in the context of personal self defense but also in providing tools that enable bystanders to intervene. I see this as a self-defense coach, and I think Elemental’s performance metrics hint at this effect, too, although evaluation period is still pretty short (because it’s a new program).

    I just discovered this page and look forward to coming back frequently.

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