By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Reporting sexual assaults on campus

My former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi is the lead reporter in a series on how college and university administrators respond to allegations of sexual assault. Published by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative-reporting project, the series is the product of months of work and scores of interviews.

Lombardi reports that when law enforcement declines to step in because of insufficient evidence, conflicting stories and the like, colleges are mandated under federal law to investigate. Yet victims and alleged victims encounter a frustrating atmosphere of secrecy and of administrators who don’t always take them seriously. Lombardi writes:

College administrators bristle at the idea they’re shielding rapes. But they admit they’ve wrestled with confidentiality in campus assault proceedings because of FERPA and the Clery Act [federal laws that mandate privacy]. Confusion over the laws has reinforced what critics see as a culture of silence that casts doubt on the credibility of the process. “People will think we’re running star chambers,” says Don Gehring, founder of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, referring to secret, arbitrary courts in old England. “And that’s what’s happening now.”

The series, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” is a vivid example of investigative journalism’s migration to online, non-profit organizations. And, as is more and more often the case with such projects, it comes complete with multimedia, additional resources and an extensive “Reporter’s Toolkit” to help news organizations follow up on the work produced by Lombardi and her fellow journalists.

Last week, Lombardi discussed her report on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

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  1. James Harvey

    It always struck me as odd that colleges and universities would be expected to dispense justice when law enforcement is unable to. If professional investigators, working with the advantage of warrants and subpoenas, can’t produce sufficient evidence, how is a dean’s hearing supposed to produce said evidence? Throw in privacy laws governing colleges, but not police, and the shock shouldn’t be that schools don’t go after more accused rapists, but that they go after any at all.

    The only advantage that a university has over law enforcement is that they can use a lesser standard of evidence. But is creating extrajudicial de facto courts that employ lesser standards of evidence really in the interest of justice?

  2. Joey

    I’ve never really understood why colleges and universities are investigating crimes in the first place. If it’s a crime, turn all evidence over to the police and district attorney. If it’s not, don’t.

    I have much sympathy for all the victims of sexual assault out there, of course, but it’s in equal amount to all the falsely accused out there as well. (Hello, Duke lacrosse team.) Let’s not forget that rape is the most under-reported AND falsely reported crime in the country.

  3. Let’s not forget that rape is the most under-reported AND falsely reported crime in the country.

    Wrong. False reports are just as common as with any other crime. Some studies show that it’s even lower.

  4. Al

    What victims have to do is immediately get the local police department involved in any assault and take it out of the hands of the campus or university police.

  5. Just to set a few things straight:

    To Al: At the University of Virginia, the campus police have jurisdiction over crimes that occur on campus. Although the local Charlottesville police were contacted about the on-campus rape, they did not have the jurisdiction to investigate.

    To James: The University of Virginia is in violation of Title IX because the student tribunal uses the Clear and Convincing Standard of Proof to find someone guilty; a civil court requires the lesser standard for a guilty verdict, Preponderance of Evidence.

    For more information about the case featured in Kristen’s story, visit

  6. Joey

    Ratu, can you provide a link to some FBI or Justice Department study that proves that? Because I’ve always heard otherwise, and I’d be delighted to get hard facts on this.

    As a former crime reporter, I personally believe false rape reports are common, although I’ve never seen the definitive study to prove or disprove this. It’s just something I’ve been told by police and ADAs, and seen reported elsewhere.

    (And yes, everyone gearing up to attack me, I also believe un-reported rape is common too, and a serious problem for all.)

  7. Brad Deltan

    What victims have to do is immediately get the local police department involved in any assault and take it out of the hands of the campus or university police.

    Al, what happens when the “local police” is the campus police force? That’s the case with several of the major universities in Boston and elsewhere. As I understand it, the only difference between the BUPD and the BPD, is the BUPD is contractually blocked from issuing traffic citations…which is more a political/money issue than anything. I don’t know about the HUPD, NUPD, MITPD or BCPD.

    With that in mind, perhaps I can clarify your remark and say that victims should report it TO THE POLICE, and not to a campus ADMINISTRATOR. Because the BUPD (just to name one) is a “real” police force, they are governed by the same laws as any municipal police force, and thus are far less likely to be influenced by campus administrators.

    Usually you can know if your campus security is provided by a registered police force or just private security…only cops are allowed to call themselves “police”. If it says “PD” on the cars, then they’re “real” cops.

    And I’d like to codify what’s being left unsaid here: there is no such thing as a campus judicial board of any kind that is “impartial”. They ALL have a single agenda: whatever happens, it has to make the college look good. Or at least, look the least bad. Due to human nature, that usually means glossing over the accusations and hushing things up as much as possible. No college wants to have a high-profile rape case on its campus; that sort of thing can cost you dozens of applications and/or acceptances.

    At smaller, tuition-dependent colleges (where each student can represent $15k in annual revenue on average) just losing five students to bad publicity from a rape case can mean real pain to your budget. That’s a powerful incentive to pay far less attention to the truth or to victim’s rights.

  8. Al

    Brad: Nice post. Your comment about the allegiance of the campus police depts to their administrations is the reason why I think that the police dept for the municipality where a college is located should be the one to handle assaults committed there. Using the BUPD as an example, at what point is an alleged crime their turf, and where do the Boston police hold sway, Kenmore Sq, the neighborhood restaurants along Comm Ave? So much of BU fronts public streets that it becomes difficult to know where the campus begins and city ends, unlike a BC, for example, which has a more self contained, contiguous campus.

  9. Brad Deltan

    @Al. That’s a good question for which I don’t have an answer. I’m sure there is an answer, one could probably call up the BUPD and ask around and eventually get it. It’s probably a relatively vague concept by necessity…as in, it’s not as if there’s a border crossing at Charlesgate where suddenly it’s not the BPD’s turf anymore. It’s probably more that the regular patrol routes are divvied up so that the BUPD covers the campus areas, and calls regarding BU-owned buildings are assigned to the BUPD. But a cop is a cop – that’s something the BUPD has had to work hard to remind people of over the years. I know the BUPD better than the other schools, and I know they’ve had to remind more than a few drunken BU students that they (meaning the BUPD) don’t give a rat’s ass if the kid’s a BU student or not, they’re being arrested and booked just like any other publicly drunken PitA.

    In fact, I do vaguely remember hearing about how there was some pressure for the BUPD to work more with the BU administration because the kids busted for underage drinking by the BUPD were processed just like anyone else (assuming they were over 18, which most are) but anyone busted by BU’s Resident Education (i.e. the guards at the dorms and the R.A.’s) for underage drinking got a letter sent to their parents…which the kids feared a lot more. 🙂

    Anyways, just to be clear: if your campus police are actual police, like the BUPD is (and I believe the HUPD, NUPD, MITPD are, and maybe BCPD, too) then you shouldn’t have to worry about reporting a crime to them any more than reporting a crime to the Boston PD, Cambridge PD, Somerville PD, etc. The BUPD are real cops and thus they’re largely immune from political pressure from the BU Administration.

    What you need to watch out for is reporting a crime to your R.A. Or to your dorm proctor. Or to the security guards (not PD) on your campus. Any of those groups will not have the weight of local, state and federal law that compels them to pursue the case according to the rules and laws of the US judicial system (like cops do) and thus they are subject to all manners of political pressure. Or worse, they may be subjec to the myriad array of privacy laws that accredited colleges/universities have to follow. Such privacy laws are not designed to preserve victim’s rights nearly as well as compared to the criminal justice system is.

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