Sexual Assault on Campus: A Special Report

On campuses across New Jersey, more students are coming forward about sexual misconduct, but confusion remains.

Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

Before the alleged misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and the rest came to light, there was a drunken fraternity boy weaving his way toward a keg, red Solo cup in hand.

Carol, an English literature major now in her junior year at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, met the boy as a freshman.

“If the definition of sexual assault is going to a frat party and getting groped,” she said in December from a café table at the Barnes & Noble near campus, where she and a friend were having lunch, “then I’ve definitely been sexually assaulted.” A poised, wavy-haired 21-year-old from West Orange with cat-eye eyeliner, Carol (not her real name) never considered reporting the incident with the frat boy, though she thinks Rutgers is an especially proactive school when it comes to preventing and policing sexual violence.

“It’s such a rowdy atmosphere at those parties, you almost think of that behavior as part of the scene,” says Carol. “They’re a hotbed of sexual assault.” Every woman she knows who attempted to find her social footing freshman year by dabbling in frat parties was violated in some way, be it a hand up the skirt or unwanted body contact in the bathroom line. “Almost all of us,” says Carol, “have been through something like that.”

Ryan, a friend at a nearby table who graduated last spring with a degree in philosophy and linguistics, remembers his freshman year, when guys in his dorm would talk about the girls they planned to get drunk and take advantage of that weekend. “Sexual assault is a huge problem here,” says the 22-year-old, who now lives and works in New Brunswick.

Whether college campuses are as prone to sexual misconduct as the TV, film and other industries is unclear. What is known is that college students have been at the forefront of reporting abuse, even though many, like Carol, choose to forgo reporting and try to move on. A frequently cited 2007 statistic from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network and the U.S. Department of Justice holds that one in five college women ages 18-24 report having been sexually assaulted. Considering that sexual assault is the most underreported of all crimes for reasons that include embarrassment, concern about ruining a perpetrator’s life, and the not-unfounded suspicion that the accuser’s story will be doubted, the 20 percent statistic is especially worrisome.

Even before the #MeToo movement went viral last year, more students had begun to come forward. In 2014, 20.2 million students attended college in the United States. The students reported about 6,700 sexual-assault incidents to their universities compared with 2,200 reports in 2001, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2016, Rutgers recorded 23 rapes among the 36,000 undergraduate students at its New Brunswick campus. The College of New Jersey, in Ewing, counted 12 rapes on campus among its 6,787; Rowan University, in Glassboro, recorded 11 among 14,000 undergrads. Three years earlier, those numbers were 14, 4 and 7, respectively.

Colleges and universities deserve credit for abiding by the Clery Act, which since 1990 has required them to collect and disclose sexual-assault data. But few can claim transparency. Media representatives at three of the four New Jersey colleges and universities contacted for this story declined to grant interviews with school officials. That is not to say that the three reticent schools—Princeton University, Ramapo College and William Paterson University, all currently involved in high-profile rape cases—are any less engaged in figuring out how to deal with sexual assault and the extent to which it affects their communities than Rutgers, the one that did agree to comment. But it suggests that the schools want to keep reporters at arm’s length for fear that anything they say might come back to bite them.

And that, according to Vanessa Grigoriadis, is to be expected. Grigoriadis is the author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), a book that considers the sexual-assault allegations of two New Jersey women who attended colleges out of state—one went to Wesleyan, the other to Georgetown. Campus sexual assault, says Grigoriadis, is “so delicate a subject, the PR risk is so large, that colleges would rather say nothing than take the risk of not being portrayed the way they want to be portrayed.”

Blame that on incidents controversial or terrible enough to have captured the nation’s attention, including the case of Emma Sulkowicz, the so-called Mattress Girl, who dragged a mattress around the Columbia University campus in 2014 to call attention to her plight as a rape victim, or the Duke lacrosse team rape accusations of 2006 (later proven false). Other stories have skidded out of New Jersey’s own institutions of higher learning. The most harrowing is the ongoing case of Cherelle Jovanna Locklear, a freshman at William Paterson who hanged herself in 2015 after she was allegedly raped during a party at the college’s Sigma Pi fraternity house. No one was charged in the case, although Locklear had identified her alleged attacker.

But if media coverage and a greater willingness to report incidents have raised awareness, institutions of higher education are still struggling to untangle the rat’s nest of drama and confusion around sexual misconduct. One problem: On college campuses—and arguably in the wider world—nobody agrees exactly how to define sexual assault.

“I don’t think anybody has a clear compass on this,” says Grigoriadis. “It’s different for everybody. A 22-year-old [student] you find in a progressive corner of campus is going to have a much different definition of sexual assault than a 60-year-old man.” And that 60-year-old male may be the one hearing a rape case while sitting on a school’s adjudication panel. (Most schools have their own tribunals for trying sex assault cases.)

Rebecca Emont has learned how difficult it is to define sexual assault. Emont, the victim of a 2014 incident at Rutgers New Brunswick, is deeply unsatisfied with the outcome of her case. Emont says her ex-boyfriend, a fellow student, raped her on several occasions. The young man, she says, eventually confessed his crime to a faculty member, the head of student conduct. But the fact that Emont continued to have sex with the student after the nonconsensual sex complicated her complaint, at least for Rutgers administrators and the Middlesex County Special Victims Unit, which told her she had no case. The ex-boyfriend was suspended for three semesters, though Emont had made clear that she felt expulsion was the only acceptable outcome.

“People do not understand what consent is,” says Emont, who grew up in Ridgewood and now lives in Colorado, where she’s studying to be a social worker. “College students,” she says, “have no idea. They weren’t taught in high school. All our culture teaches people when it comes to consent is that no means no. And that’s not really what it is. An enthusiastic yes is what’s required for consent. If you don’t get an enthusiastic yes from your partner, then you don’t have consent.”

If a lack of understanding about what constitutes sexual violation helped get us into this mess, politics has compounded the problem.
Federal civil rights law provides college students their own path to justice for sexual assault. Victims can file their complaints with their schools, and school officials are legally obligated to investigate. That’s because of Title IX, a federal law most people associate with sports, because it requires schools to treat male and female athletes equally. But courts have held that sexual harassment and sexual assault are forms of discrimination prohibited by Title IX. That means schools are responsible for addressing harassment and assault as part of creating a fair environment for all students.

In 2011, the Obama administration stepped up enforcement of Title IX by issuing what is referred to as the Dear Colleague letter. The directive was sent to more than 7,000 colleges and universities that receive federal money. It includes guidance on due process for both the accuser and the accused. Both parties, it says, “must have an equal opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence.”
Among other things, the letter advises against allowing accused students to directly cross-examine their accusers, recommends a 60-day time frame for investigations, and warns schools against using informal mediation in cases of sexual assault.

But in September 2017, Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary, rescinded the Obama-era guidelines. Under the Dear Colleague rules, administrators are advised to use the lowest standard of proof, known as preponderance of the evidence, to determine guilt. Now, colleges may choose a higher standard: clear and convincing evidence. Students can also opt to settle sexual-assault cases through mediation. And colleges are no longer obliged to complete investigations within 60 days.

Bipartisan support for the DeVos reforms has since emerged. In September, the Atlantic published a three-part series, “The Uncomfortable Truth About Campus Rape Policy,” that argued the Obama-era guidelines had limited students’ right to due process. The same month, the New Yorker ran a story by a feminist Harvard Law School professor that described DeVos’s remapping of the rules as “an embrace of a framework of compatibility, one in which Title IX seriously addresses sexual violence and also requires fairness to the accuser and the accused.”

Andrew Miltenberg, a Title IX attorney from Franklin Lakes who successfully represented the man accused by the Mattress Girl, says he saw the changes coming.

“Right now, the process around these cases is Byzantine and, at most schools, opaque at best,” says Miltenberg. “But what I’m seeing is that regardless of what the [Department of Education] does, schools are doubling down, and they’re going to continue handling these cases a certain way.” That way, says Miltenberg, follows the Dear Colleague letter, which he maintains is prejudicial to the accused.

Miltenberg, who has represented more than 200 accused students nationwide since he started handling such cases in 2013, has taken on Rutgers, Princeton, the College of New Jersey, William Paterson, Drew University and Seton Hall. Although he goes to bat for the accused, Miltenberg says it is high time universities examine their own presumptions about sexual assault, as well as their investigative processes.

“Prior to 2011, there was a sense that boys will be boys. If a young woman was at a frat party on a Friday night, and she went to the room of a guy she’s known for two years, and all of a sudden she found her shirt and bra were off, the response to her complaint would be, ‘Well, dear, you shouldn’t have been at a frat house wearing a halter top and a short skirt.’ That’s clearly, patently offensive,” he says—pure blame-the-victim sexism. But attempts to root out this type of thinking have been “poorly planned and horrifically carried out,” in his opinion.
Defense attorneys don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment.

“The main problem I see is there’s really no uniformity from school to school in how they handle complaints,” says Jeffrey Fritz, a lawyer at the Philadelphia firm Soloff & Zervanos currently representing a survivor of a high-profile November 2015 incident at Rutgers involving two football players and a lot of alcohol.

“Even though you have laws like Title IX that are there to protect against discrimination and to protect against sexual assault,” he continues, “there’s no uniform procedure being applied to hearings at schools.”

Fritz can’t discuss the specifics of the Rutgers case, which is now in federal court, but in general is troubled by what he sees as a circus-like atmosphere surrounding sexual-assault hearings.

“In these disciplinary hearings you have either the victim presenting the case or somebody who’s not trained presenting the case, because often they’re not allowed to have an attorney present,” says Fritz.

“On top of that,” he continues, “you have staff members or faculty deciding the case. Nobody’s given them any instruction or direction as to what constitutes consent. They’re applying their own definition. And frankly, they’re usually wrong. They don’t understand that drunken consent is not consent. They tend to apply old-fashioned stereotypes about how the victim shouldn’t have gotten intoxicated in the first place.”

The bottom line, says Fritz, is that “if every element in the proceeding is being done by people untrained in this, and there is no uniformity in the proceedings, the result in the outcomes is arbitrary. And that’s problematic for both the victim and for the defendant.”

Not all colleges concede that the process is arbitrary. At Princeton, for example, “there are more than 10 staff members trained to participate in sexual-misconduct disciplinary processes,” writes Michele Minter, vice provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity and the university’s Title IX coordinator, in an e-mailed response. These staff members, she continues, “receive extensive training covering different types of sexual assault, intimate-partner violence, stalking and harassment; interview techniques; definitions of consent and incapacitation; and the effects of trauma, among other topics.”

But Miltenberg suspects that faculty members chosen to become Title IX coordinators disproportionately have backgrounds in victim advocacy, which may make them biased. However, people like Jackie Moran, the Title IX coordinator at Rutgers New Brunswick, previously a senior staff attorney in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, fiercely denies any bias. She says she works with a cadre of colleagues trained to participate in disciplinary hearings. And she says her former role at the DOE has given her “an enormous amount of experience investigating cases.”

Illustration by Sandra Dionisi

Still, not all accusers walk out of their disciplinary hearings at Rutgers New Brunswick feeling vindicated. Rebecca Emont knows this. So does Jeffrey Fritz’s client in the football assault case. The woman, a freshman at the time of the incident, claims her alleged attackers gave her multiple shots of alcohol in an attempt to get her drunk. She eventually passed out and, according to her legal filing, awoke the next morning “with the smell of vomit in her hair, swollen lips and nose, and abrasions on her knees and elbows and a bump to her head.” A medical examination revealed vaginal tearing and evidence on her body of a substance “believed to be semen,” according to the lawsuit. In May 2016, Rutgers charged the two accused men, John Bowers and Marques Ford, with sexual assault, as defined by the student code of conduct. The two had already been suspended from the football team after Bowers told coaches about the incident. After the May 2016 finding, the university meted out further, undisclosed punishments to the players, both subsequently transferred to other universities. But none of this satisfied the alleged victim. She sued Rutgers, claiming its “indifference” to risks posed by Ford “created and/or permitted the opportunity for Ford and Bowers’ sexual assault.” She also sued the two players and other parties; the case is pending in federal court.

Much attention is paid to how Rutgers handles such cases. In 2014, the Obama administration invited the school’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children to conduct and evaluate a “campus climate survey” to assess sexual violence. In August 2015, researchers at the School of Social Work delivered the report to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Both offices then encouraged colleges and universities across the country to consider the Rutgers model in efforts to curb sexual assault on their own campuses.

Included in that model—essentially the Rutgers toolkit for increasing awareness of sexual assault—is SCREAM Theater, an acting troupe that performs at orientation programs, reaching about 5,000 students annually. SCREAM stands for Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths. Its themes include sexual assault, dating violence, same-sex violence, stalking, peer sexual harassment and bullying. Another Rutgers resource is a 24/7 confidential hotline staffed with advocates who undergo at least 60 hours of training.

Moran is proud that the atmosphere of candor at Rutgers has more survivors coming forward. “I’m happy when I get an increase in reports, because based on our climate survey, we know we have significantly more people victimized than reports,” she says. “I firmly believe an increase in reports means people are more comfortable making those reports.” In October, Joe Biden was welcomed to the New Brunswick campus to promote his It’s On Us campaign, designed to help end sexual assault.

Still, openness and efforts at prevention can do only so much to eliminate sexual misdeeds. And until it is made clear what constitutes sexual misconduct and how to equitably punish violators, victims are not the only ones who potentially suffer.

Miltenberg says he receives calls and e-mails daily from accused young men and their parents pleading for help. The details of their cases vary, but they have two things in common. One is an undercurrent of desperation. “Their futures are severely compromised,” says Miltenberg. “Once there’s a permanent notation of a suspension for a sex offense, you may or may not be able to get into law school or go into law enforcement. Anything you need a license for, your chances just went way down. If you’re expelled, your chances just became infinitesimal.”

The second common denominator is the changing view of rape. “Rape used to be when someone was hiding under the stairs and they grabbed you. There was a stranger and an element of surprise.” Now, says Miltenberg, we know better. “We know that you can rape your wife, and that you can have sex with the same person 10 times, but the 11th time might be nonconsensual.” That is where things get confusing.

Miltenberg says the cases he works on invariably involve two people who know each other. They had hooked up before or gone to parties together and ended up in each other’s dorm rooms. Then “there’s some sexual interaction, and at some point on that spectrum of sexual interaction—after they were kissing or after they performed oral sex or while they’re having intercourse—somewhere along there, they had different ideas of what should have been happening,” he says.

Grigoriadis, in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, put it this way: “On campus, the young college women and men I met were not, by and large, arguing about whether certain acts occurred in the bedroom. Many young men who say they have been falsely accused of sexual assault do not deny that the sex at issue happened in the way their accusers described it. Instead, they argue that their conduct—while perhaps not outstanding and worthy of gold stars—was still acceptable. It’s not, ‘Yes, you did!’ versus ‘No, I didn’t’; it’s ‘Yes, it was consensual!’ versus ‘No, it wasn’t!’”

She appears to agree with Miltenberg that, to some extent, young men are vulnerable: “By and large, kids aren’t taught the right vocabulary to distinguish between sexual assault and bad sex,” she wrote.

The consequences of the lack of a clear definition of sexual assault range from one party feeling deeply demeaned to total devastation. Princeton faces a March 2017 suit by a former graduate student who claims the university failed to act on two sex-assault complaints he filed against his then boyfriend; the former graduate student says he tried to kill himself when his allegations weren’t taken seriously. The suit claims “deliberate indifference and gender bias” on Princeton’s part on the basis of the complainant’s sex.

This is not the first time Princeton has been accused of going easy on alleged perpetrators of sexual assault. In 2014, the university reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education after a four-year investigation found it tended to favor the accused in sexual-assault cases. In the ruling, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights concluded that Princeton had failed to provide “prompt and equitable responses to complaints of sexual assault and violence,” and in at least one case, “allowed for the continuation of a sexually hostile environment that limited and denied the student’s access to the university’s educational program.”

An ongoing case at Ramapo involves two fraternity brothers who allegedly played a game of rock, paper, scissors to determine who would rape a 19-year-old fellow student who had passed out after being served alcohol at a party in a third frat brother’s on-campus apartment. According to the alleged victim’s federal lawsuit, she was subsequently driven across campus to a freshman dorm, where she again was sexually assaulted by two students, while at least three others watched and videotaped the assaults. The alleged victim has since tried to resume her college career at two different New Jersey schools, only to drop out of both, according to one news report.

Perhaps most horrifying of all is the case of Locklear, at William Paterson. She was allegedly raped at the off-campus Sigma Pi fraternity house during a party in September 2015. One month later, after attempting suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, she sought help from the university’s victim services coordinator. In November, the 21-year-old hanged herself with a necktie in a dorm bathroom. Her mother, Marquesa C. Jackson-Locklear, is suing the university, the fraternity, the responding officers and the campus victims-services counselor, claiming they did not act in a timely fashion to investigate the incident and provide “the necessary care required under Title IX.”

Bradley Rice, of the Roseland law firm Nagel Rice LLP, is one of the lead attorneys in the case. He says members of the fraternity are believed to have videotaped the alleged assault of Locklear, and that the social pressure of knowing they had the tape—and purportedly had shared it with others—“got to her.” Rice won’t say whether the tape is available as evidence in the case.

“It’s also our belief that there was an environment at William Paterson that led [Locklear] to believe it’s better to keep quiet,” says Rice. Ultimately, he adds, “Ms. Jackson-Locklear has found herself in every mother’s worst nightmare.”

Despite such stories, some students, including Carol at Rutgers, are optimistic about a changing environment. After her initial conversation with this reporter, she followed up with an e-mail. “I do believe the rate of sexual misconduct has gotten better,” she wrote, “even if it’s just because everyone is on the defensive against it.”

Carol described a personal experience, “a nightmare scenario of being a girl alone, slightly tipsy,” walking back at night to her Easton Avenue dorm. Fearful, she instinctively started walking close to another female student, “not caring if she thought I was weird.” The other woman immediately picked up on Carol’s vibe and walked right alongside her. “She just read the situation: me desperate for an ally.”

To Carol, this is the new normal. “I’ve seen it again and again,” she wrote. “Without having so much as said a word to each other before, girls will form packs to protect someone alone or intoxicated. Sweet guys, gay or straight, will say they noticed that you’re being bothered, and offer to be your pretend boyfriend or just strike up a conversation as a barrier against an entitled creep who wasn’t able (or didn’t want to) read how uncomfortable your body language was.”

Carol concluded, “perhaps there aren’t fewer ‘predators,’ but us ‘prey’ are getting smart.”

It will take smart students, smart administrators and smart policies to stem the tide of campus sexual assault. But success will hinge on refusing to let sexual violence remain in the shadows.

Additional reporting by Joanna Buffum.

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