A recent U.S. Department of Education ruling on how colleges and universities must treat rape victims may end up making a huge difference in how the media covers the problem of on-campus sexual assault.
While most schools still avoid disclosing the way they discipline students who assault other students, under the July DOE ruling, they can no longer force sexual assault victims to sign confidentiality agreements before telling them the outcome of disciplinary cases against attackers.
The Education Department said the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, a provision in the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, entitles victims to receive that information without any conditions or limitations. Therefore, if victims choose, they can identify an attacker publicly and disclose the school’s punishment.
“(A victim) can post a flier … can call a news conference,” said Charles Davis, chairman of the Campus Crime Subcommittee of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee.
“What she doesn’t have to do is sit silently in class next to her rapist when he got off with a warning, or risk being punished herself if she says anything to a friend who’s thinking about dating the guy.”
Of course, victims can report the crime to the police and pursue public charges against a fellow student through the criminal justice system in addition to seeking college disciplinary action. But Department of Justice study found that although as many as one in four female college students may experience a sexual assault during their college career, less than 5 percent report them to law enforcement.
Instead, most choose to follow only the often less-intimidating internal campus channels.
That’s what Kate Dieringer, a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., did after another student assaulted her in September 2001. The university expelled the attacker, but after an appeal, GU reduced the expulsion to a one-year suspension.
Dieringer’s complaint about the disciplinary system, first revealed publicly in a column she wrote for the campus newspaper, eventually won the July ruling from the Department of Education that prompted Georgetown to change its disciplinary system to no longer require sexual assault victims to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Victims now can disclose the identity of assailants and the punishments the school imposed, if any, to the public without fear of punishment from their school.
In the case of disclosure to the media outlets, they must decide whether to use the information.
For example, reporters may find it difficult to verify the punishment unless the student accused of the crime confirms it.
Most schools do not routinely release information about disciplinary cases as a matter of policy, although federal law allows them to release final results of disciplinary actions against students found to have committed crimes of sexual assault and other violent crimes.
And a court challenge might pry the records loose at a state school if that state’s open records law requires the release of such records not protected by federal privacy laws.
If a media outlet can confirm to its satisfaction the punishment and the identity of the assailant, then it must decide whether to identify the victim in the story — a decision that likely hangs on the media outlet’s policies on identifying sexual assault victims and the use of unidentified sources.
“Certainly SPJ is very sensitive to the issue of identifying victims of violent crimes, particularly crimes involving sexual assault,” said SPJ President Mac McKerral. “The SPJ Ethics Code addresses this with its tenet to minimize harm. And journalists need to weigh very carefully the consequences of identifying such victims when that information is made available to them.”
So far, sexual assault victims are the only crime victims unconditionally entitled to learn the outcome of disciplinary cases against fellow students under the special provision of the Clery Act.
The family of another Georgetown student, the late David Shick, is trying to get Congress to pass legislation to require schools to tell the victims of all violent crime — or the families of deceased victims — disciplinary action facing those found responsible.
Shick died in February 2000 during an on-campus fight when a student knocked Shick to the ground, where Shick hit his head and died. The student responsible, as a penalty, wrote a 10-page paper and attended alcohol counseling. An appeal by the student overturned a one-semester suspension and the student never missed a day of classes as a penalty.
As with Dieringer, the university wanted Shick’s parents to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which would have prohibited them from telling even their other two children the outcome of the case. However, they refused to sign and learned the outcome of the case more than a year later after filing a lawsuit against the student.
The Shicks’ proposed law has been incorporated into the Republican-sponsored bill now pending in the House of Representatives to renew the Higher Education Act.
But advocates for school administrators and judicial affairs officials have been lobbying against the provision. They argue that schools should at least be allowed to restrict the victims’ right to re-disclose the information to others, particularly the news media.
While it is not clear yet if the proposed legislation will help the public get information about violent crime hidden in the nation’s campus courts, the Department of Education ruling clarified one area and that will help.
At least now, sexual assault victims have the unrestricted ability to discuss their ordeals in collegiate disciplinary systems.
Carolyn Carlson is vice chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee’s Campus Crime Subcommittee. She is a former national president of SPJ, a former national Ethics Committee chairman and founder of SPJ’s Campus Courts Task Force. She teaches at Georgia State University, where she is a doctoral candidate in political science.