May 1, 2007

Sexual assault policy adopted

Before the University adopted an official sexual assault policy last week, rape victims were prone to another form of hardship: getting lost in what some see as the bureaucratic mess of the old sexual assault policy.

This was the case for one College graduate, A.B. ’05, who spoke on the condition that her name be withheld.

Her story began in the spring of her fourth year on a night she said involved “too much alcohol and some poor choices.” She was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance.

And when she turned to the University for help, things only got worse. The system crumbled as soon as she called the sexual assault dean-on-call, as all students are encouraged to do during orientation.

“The dean was so abrasive I broke down and started crying—one of the only two times I ended up in tears during the immediate aftermath. Essentially, since I wasn’t pressing charges, she couldn’t understand why I was interrupting her evening and wasting her time,” the alumna said.

Her trip to the Student Care Center (SCC) offered little redress.

“A doctor…made me feel ashamed during my rape exam and gave me no directions whatsoever on how to find out the results of my STD results. I felt like a machine would have had better bedside manner,” she said. She only obtained her test results after begging a sympathetic receptionist to look them up. The woman said that two years later, she is still working through issues related to her sexual assault, which the University only made more difficult to sort out.

“Having to call each office and explain again and again why you need to make appointments is really difficult when you’re holding onto the last of your sanity by a thread and struggling to complete the most basic tasks, like eat meals and show up at classes,” she said.

With the old policy on its way out—a policy that this woman said was characterized by a “lack of cohesion” and “a complete lack of empathy”—many are hopeful that students will no longer have to deal with what victims saw as an unnavigable process.

Before the change, mention of sexual assault was confined to the University’s sexual harassment policy, where it was defined as a direct form of sexual harassment. Last week, the University enacted an official sexual assault policy that explicitly defines sexual assault and spells out the avenues by which sexual assault victims can seek help. It aims to streamline resources that already exist at the University, making the bureaucratic aspects of seeking help “smoother and less difficult for everyone who’s going through it,” according to Ingrid Gould, associate provost and assistant vice president. Gould was a member of the committee that wrote the new policy.

Gould said the new policy conveys the gravity with which the University regards sexual assault. “I hope that part of the message of the people providing services—who’ve always provided excellent services—is that the University stands behind the policy and that there’s a seriousness to it.”

Since the new policy aims to encourage sexual assault victims to come forward and report the crime, Gould said it is possible that this could lead to a rise in the U of C’s rape statistics. According to Gould, the goal is to “empower” members of the University community.

Yet many question why the University took so long to create a sexual assault policy. The U of C was one of the last of U.S. News & World Report’s top 15 Universities to spell out detailed policies regarding sexual assault, a step some schools took as early as the 1990s.

“I’m glad we’ve finally got a policy…. You’re talking to someone who wished for such a policy much longer than we’ve had one,” Gould said.

She added that creating a specific sexual assault policy long met resistance in the University from those who did not believe in “having a policy [to deal with] what they thought was criminal behavior and should be dealt with through a court system.”

“I think this is an institution where things happen incrementally. I’ve seen the attention given to this important issue increase over the years, and I see this as one additional step on the road to progress,” Gould said.

But some have criticized these incremental “steps” as the University’s wide scale reluctance to modernize their stance on a range of social issues.

Deborah Nelson, director of the Center for Gender Studies, saw a link between the founding of the Center for Gender Studies in 1996—decades after the height of the women’s movement—and the late establishment of the sexual assault policy.

“We were behind our peers in establishing this policy and in founding the center. I think it does reflect a certain conservatism, perhaps as much intellectual as social, in that the University has long been committed to core knowledge, great books, etc., and gender studies challenges that at the deepest level,” Nelson said.

Fourth-year Michelle Rengarajan, President of the University chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and a member of the committee that crafted the new policy, attributed the University’s slow pace for addressing sexual assault to a lack of pressure from students, comparing the 10-plus years that Northwestern University has celebrated Take Back the Night, an event aimed at empowering women against violence, to the U of C’s mere three.

At other schools, there have been “long-established groups to deal with this coming from the students and the University itself. That hasn’t been true here,” Rengarajan said.

NOW was one of the main groups pressuring the administration to craft a sexual assault policy, staging the “Friday by Five” week, aimed to raise awareness about sexual violence policies and gain administration attention by the end of the week. Gould said that pressure came from within the administration, from teachers, and from other students as well.

Despite the relative lateness with which the University founded its sexual assault policy, Rengarajan pointed out that the new policy includes a clause that could help undo some of the harm caused by past bureaucratic difficulties. Unlike the state of Illinois, the University policy sets no time limit for reporting formal complaints of sexual assault. Other than that, she saw little the University could do to take back the harm potentially caused by a lack of sufficient policies in the past.

“They can apologize or something, but I don’t know how much that would do,” she said.

Some still see problems in the new policy. Rengarajan pointed out that students pursuing disciplinary action against their attacker are required to speak with the Dean of Students. Yet there is no mandate for the Dean of Students to become versed in the problem of sexual assault, nor is there any required training for that office, Gould said.

Some have also questioned the confidentiality issues involved with sexual assault reports. Gould said students who pursue University disciplinary action against their attacker are not allowed to release certain information regarding the attacker.

“I can imagine that it would be deeply frustrating, and I can imagine that people would want to…. I imagine it would feel as much her information as the other person’s information. I’m completely sympathetic. But…this is where you end up when the law says you can’t tell anyone,” Gould said.