In October 2010, a young woman was sleeping in her University of Hawaii dorm in Manoa when a co-worker she thought was her friend sexually assaulted her. Both were students working as resident advisors in one of the Hale Aloha dorm buildings.
Unlike most student victims of rape and sexual assault, she formally reported the incident — in this case, to administrators in charge of campus housing. But administrators may have botched her case from the very beginning, according to reports that were put together by a counselor who later helped the woman navigate the university’s internal disciplinary proceedings.
In fact, the school officials only made her feel more victimized as the investigation ensued.
One administrator even emailed this note to residence staff, including the victim, shortly after the incident: “I wanted to let you know that (the perpetrator) is doing fine and we appreciate you giving him privacy over the last few weeks.”
The email, a copy of which was included in the reports, then went on to explain that he would transfer to another building but keep his job as a resident advisor: “(The perpetrator) and I ask that you continue to respect his privacy and wish him well as he transitions into a new area/community. You are all friends, so please continue to be friends!”
The school found the perpetrator responsible in an internal decision issued in November 2010, a month after the incident. But the man, according to the counselor’s reports, was still living in the dorms that December. And administrators didn’t give the victim a letter detailing the decision until January 2011 — after her third request for the document, according to the reports.
“They take forever to come and make it seem like it is an inconvenience for them.” — Adora Klinestiver, UH Manoa student, referring to a campus security ride service
The case was adjudicated internally by the Housing Department and never brought to the attention of the Honolulu Police Department or another legal authority. University policy requires that UH advise and encourage victims to file charges with law enforcement, but it is ultimately the victim’s choice whether or not to reach out to police or campus security; the university doesn’t automatically do so.
The counselor’s reports suggest that the woman was never apprised of these rights.
The university declined to comment on the case, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act which governs student privacy. But reports on similar incidents and conversations with students indicate that the woman’s experience isn’t isolated.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently investigated UH Manoa for possible violations of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law that requires schools to protect their students from sexual violence. The results of the investigation haven’t yet been released.
Mishandling of complaints could help explain why so few victims end up reporting the incidents to authorities.
Underreporting of sexual misconduct is a chronic problem at UH even though many of the incidents — roughly half of them when it comes to UH Manoa — happen on campus grounds, according to a UH survey conducted in 2010 among 2,700 or so students across the state. Just 9 percent of the 109 students who said they were sexually assaulted during their time at UH actually reported it, whether to police, campus security or a faculty or staff member, the survey revealed. The rate was just 7 percent for the 46 students who said they were raped.
It’s clearly not just a UH problem, because the university’s data parallels national statistics from the Department of Justice, which estimates that just 12 percent of college victims report their assault to law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, as many as one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during her time in school, according to some estimates.
Recent guidelines from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network state that underreporting “amounts to a massive missed opportunity in the fight against campus sexual assault.” Victims often miss out on vital services, and perpetrators get away without being charged.
Students and women’s rights advocates say a range of shortcomings undermine UH’s efforts to combat sexual assault, from poor security on campus to limited information about resources and policies.
Colleges across the country are coming under fire for how they handle sexual assaults.
In 2013 alone, the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights received 30 complaints against colleges on the mainland — a 76 percent increase from the year before, when 17 complaints were filed. The complaints allege that the schools violated students’ civil rights under Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at colleges and is used in sexual violence cases. The complaints also reference the Clery Act, which mandates that schools report crime statistics and issue campus-wide warnings when incidents occur.
Concern has intensified in recent months, particularly after the USDOE announced its probe into at least 67 colleges and universities for potential mishandling of sexual assaults — including UH Manoa.
University officials stress that the investigation into UH Manoa doesn’t necessarily indicate wrongdoing and that the campus, unlike many of the schools on the list, was part of a sample proactively selected by the USDOE to audit Title IX compliance. But the USDOE, which is providing few details about why specific campuses were selected, has stated that the compliance reviews aren’t random.
“We’re all vulnerable to those situations. Late at night (in the dorms), it seemed as if campus security wasn’t there. They definitely don’t make their presence known.” —Samantha Baumgartner, UH Manoa student
UH’s inclusion in the investigation raises questions about the university’s handling of sexual assaults and whether it’s doing enough to protect its students. Little information is available to the public. UH Manoa reported 13 sexual assault incidents in 2012, according to USDOE data — but the data only covers incidents that were formally reported to school or law enforcement authorities.
President Barack Obama established a White House task force in January aimed at helping campuses reform their policies. That task force recently issued strict guidelines for colleges on how to handle and respond to sexual violence and offered students a “road map” for filing complaints against institutions that they believed were in violation of Title IX.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Legislature’s Women’s Caucus passed a resolution earlier this year calling on the university to affirm its commitment to combatting sexual harassment and violence.
The university is in the process of revising its sexual assault policies in response to the recent guidelines and new mandates attached to the Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized by Congress last year.
The mandates expand the Clery Act, requiring colleges to report on and adopt policies addressing additional types of crime targeted at women, including domestic violence and stalking. The legislation also requires universities to create primary prevention and awareness programs for incoming students and new employees.
It’s unclear exactly when the new UH rules will go into effect; they’re currently being reviewed by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and other employee unions. Anticipated changes include an update to the policies’ definition of “consent,” a task that colleges across the country are having trouble with as they update their guidelines and increased reporting expectations. The university will also identify a lead Title IX coordinator at each campus, according to Jan Javinar, UH’s interim associate vice president for student affairs. (Most campuses already have two coordinators that work on Title IX compliance.)
Javinar emphasized that the university will enact new training requirements for both students and employees to ensure they’re informed and aware of what constitutes sexual assault and what resources are available. The training will be ongoing.
“Information becomes meaningful when you need it,” Javinar said. “Sometimes you forget that information.”
UH is also looking to combine various regulations into a consistent, comprehensive policy that’s applicable to both students and employees, Javinar said.
University officials and regents note the new guidelines come with hefty burdens. For example, the university will need to ensure 10,000 employees know how to handle an incident, an obligation that requires lots of extra resources. At a February Board of Regents meeting, then-Interim UH President David Lassner described the guidelines as an unfunded mandate.
But the changes, Lassner said, aren’t just about compliance; they’re about “creating a safe environment for our students so they can learn.”
Javinar said the current initiative is just the latest chapter in the university’s ongoing effort to combat sexual assaults.
It’s been nearly a decade since UH declared itself a “Rape-Free Zone,” a formal commitment to improve its handling of sex assaults on campus and encourage students to report such incidents. The 2005 initiative was prompted by a series of high-profile campus rapes, including an incident in which an 18-year-old Kapiolani Community College student was abducted while walking on University Avenue and raped by five men.
The university has made some improvements over the years, including increased training requirements for employees and the implementation of a mass sexual-assault alert system, said Kathryn Xian of Girl Fest Hawaii, a nonprofit aimed at preventing violence against women and girls.
It’s also enhanced security measures in student housing: replacing front door locks with a card-access system, for example. Javinar said the university wants to improve lighting on campus as well.
Still, some students say the university should do more.
Adora Klinestiver, a junior at UH Manoa who advocates for women’s issues, said the resources the university does provide don’t always achieve what they’re supposed to. Campus security offers rides for students at night, but the service is unreliable, Klinestiver said.
“They take forever to come and make it seem like it is an inconvenience for them,” she said.
And while the Women’s Center offers informational resources and other support services, Klinestiver added, few students know about the options available to them.
Samantha Baumgartner, a senior at UH Manoa who lived in campus dorms for two years, said she wishes the university did more to get information out to students about sexual assaults and what should be done to prevent and address them.
“We’re all vulnerable to those situations,” she said, echoing Klinestiver’s concerns about the reliability of services. “Late at night (in the dorms), it seemed as if campus security wasn’t there. They definitely don’t make their presence known.”
Baumgartner also questioned whether the university would be able to appropriately handle her case if she were sexually assaulted.
“I don’t know what kind of justice I would see,” she said. “Would they be able to catch this guy? Would they put him in jail? Those are the kinds of questions I would want answers to. And the fact that I’m asking these questions is proof that there is a problem.”
Xian, who spearheaded the Rape-Free Zone initiative and is currently running for Congress, said incidents are often underreported because the school doesn’t do enough to inform students and faculty of their rights. She said school authorities should encourage victims like the one in the Hale Aloha dorm to file charges with the police, partner with professional advocates and seek outside support such as counseling — all with guaranteed confidentiality.
But Xian said administrators often fail to ensure students are aware of these options, typically because they lack the proper training on how to handle such cases and because the university lacks a “no-tolerance” approach to sexual violence. And unless a student does report the incident to law enforcement, it’s up to the university to adjudicate the case.
The university acknowledges more work needs to be done to encourage students to go to police. At the February Board of Regents meeting, Jennifer Rose, gender equity specialist at UH Manoa, told members that there have been cases in which the university might have inadvertently compromised the prosecution case because it failed to coordinate with police.
Efforts are under way to improve collaboration between the university and law enforcement, Javinar said.
Xian, who’s worked on many sexual assault cases involving UH, said this kind of mishandling can be traumatizing for students.
“These offenses are criminal investigations, not appropriately handled by an academic institution … The ultimate penalty for a perpetrator within the university system is expulsion, not prosecution,” she said. “All too often this leads to what we feel is an obstruction of justice to the detriment of the victims.”