When Julia Dixon, a 2011 graduate of the University of Akron in Ohio, began compiling research to file a federal Clery Act complaint against her alma mater for the mishandling of sexual assault cases, she had a lot of ground to cover: her complaint, filed Tuesday, alleges that the school has coerced rape victims into dropping disciplinary charges and failed to accurately report assaults and provide victims with accommodations, among other grievances.
Dixon immediately called campus police and went to the local hospital after she was raped by a student in a campus residence hall in 2008, during her first week as a freshman. Instead of receiving the support the school’s policy manual says it guarantees all students, Dixon says she was encouraged by a University of Akron detective to keep her assault a secret “because a defense lawyer could make it seem like I did it for attention otherwise” while still in the hospital. By the time police processed the result of her rape kit examination 20 months later, her rapist was no longer at the school. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of sexual imposition and assault.
Dixon was already angry that university administrators were ill-informed on the school’s official protocols for reporting sexual misconduct and assault. But when she looked at them more closely while writing her federal complaint, which she co-wrote with a current senior, she was shocked to find that large swaths appeared to have been copied, at times verbatim, from the policies of other colleges—and, in some cases, the University of Akron’s policy offered options that weren’t actually available on campus.
”It was one thing when I thought they weren't following their own policy, but now I think they're completely ignorant on this entire document,” Dixon says. “It looks like somebody skimmed it and edited it, but that's about all.”
For example, both University of Akron and the Miami University of Ohio’s policies refer to the "Office of Equity and Equal Opportunity," but no such office is listed on the University of Akron’s website, although it is listed on Miami University’s. University of Akron’s policy advises readers to "See Appendix B" for information on victim support and resources, but there is no Appendix B. Both school’s policies offer support services that include moving the alleged perpetrator or victim so the victim and alleged perpetrator do not share the same residence or dining hall, but Dixon says she was told by Student Judicial Affairs that this wasn’t an option for her given that there was only one main dining hall on the Akron campus; if she wanted to avoid her rapist, Dixon says she was told, she could go early in the morning or late at night when there were less people around.
Other alleged inconsistencies are harder to pin down—and more damaging. Both University of Akron’s policy and the Miami University of Ohio’s state that students can file a disciplinary charge and a criminal charge at the same time, although they can also file a disciplinary complaint without pursuing criminal charges. Dixon says that’s not what she was told; instead, Student Judicial Affairs said it would be difficult for her to prove to them she was raped because the police had all her evidence, so a judicial hearing would be pointless. And while both policies stress that “victim support and resources” are available even if students don’t press charges, Dixon says she was never offered any accommodations, even after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a university psychiatrist—in fact, her scholarship was terminated due to unexcused medical absences.
Dixon believes the University of Akron’s policy is not only “misleading but partially plagiarized,” and shows “that institutions are more interested in appearing to comply with the law than actually following it and helping their students”—and legal consultants and sexual assault advocates agree with her.
Organizations like the American Association of University Professors regularly release suggested policies and procedures based on research findings and federal laws that colleges and universities are encouraged to use as references. But it’s one thing to share best practices and another to just run them through the copy machine, experts say.
“If they’re going to copy/paste, it would be nice if they read it first,” quips Scott Berkowitz, the president and founder of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. It’s fine for schools to have similar policies, he says, since they’re trying to accomplish the same goals, but “certainly you would hope that administrators care enough to tailor it to their campus,” adding that one of the values of putting these policies in place is that it forces high-ranking administrators to debate and discuss sexual assault policies. “If a policy appears to be copied without individualized edits, that suggests it didn’t get the appropriate level of thought and conversation.”
It’s painfully clear that more thought, more conversation and care needs to go into these protocols. Out of the nearly 300 sexual assault policies surveyed between 2007 and 2012 by the Campus Accountability Project, a national online database of sexual assault policies at U.S. institutions of higher education, nearly 80% received a “C” grade or lower and none received higher than a B+. Nearly one-third of policies were found not to comply with federal law. “Although most of the policies in the database employ awareness-raising, risk reduction (90%) and safety initiatives (75%), these efforts are not effective in addressing the root causes of sexual violence,” the report found.
Tracey Vitchers, communications coordinator for Students Active For Ending Rape, the group that commissioned the survey, says Dixon’s charges highlight why the task force President Obama recently announced to address sexual assault on campuses must prioritize input from student survivors. “Every school faces different challenges based on its size, location and available resources,” she explains. “If a policy isn’t adequate for the campus, it’s not going to be adequate for survivors in that community.”
Complaints have continued to roll in since Obama’s announcement; staff members and students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and University of Texas Pan-American also filed federal complaints against their schools on Tuesday, according to End Rape on Campus. The former college is accused of violating both the Clery Act and the federal general equity law Title IX, while the latter is only charged with violating Title IX. As of Jan. 29, 2014, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had 39 pending Title IX investigations involving allegations of sexual violence at postsecondary institutions; they received 23 complaints pertaining to the Clery Act in 2013 and imposed eight fines totaling $1.45 million.
Denine M. Rocco, University of Akron’s Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, says creating the school’s sexual assault policy was a “group effort” shared among “a number” of offices, including the Dean of Students, the Office of Student Conduct, the Title IX coordinator and the Office of General Counsel, and that the school “absolutely shares information” with campuses across the country and in Ohio, which she doesn’t feel is “uncommon.” She wasn’t sure how often the policy was updated, but says the “Appendix B” and misnamed office were “typos” that will be fixed. She couldn’t comment on Dixon’s other allegations, she says, since she hadn’t yet received her Clery complaint.
Miami University Spokesperson Claire Wagner says the school updates its sexual assault policy at minimum once a year and didn’t mind if the University of Akron had been inspired by their protocol. “We’re all looking for best practices,” she says. “I don’t feel bad if it’s true that they borrowed some of our writing.”
It’s fine to review another school’s policy as a starting point, says Dee Spagnuolo, a partner in Ballard Spahr’s Litigation Department who advises colleges and universities on issues of sexual assault and misconduct, but the policies must be tailored to their own school’s culture and needs; a policy can’t just be “legally sufficient.”
“Universities shouldn’t view sexual violence as a question of liability that will keep them from getting sued,” says Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale law student who filed a Title IX complaint against the university in 2011 and co-founder of the student survivor campaign Know Your IX. “Blanket statements that say ‘we’re in the clear’ really have nothing to do with stopping sexual violence on campus.”
Akron is “copying a policy that looks great to victims but isn’t delivering,” Dixon says. “It’s false advertising.”