Campus Law & Order: Sexual Assault
Syracuse was my first-choice school. I knew that I wanted to be an Orange before my campus tour was even over. SU felt like the place I was meant to be and I could not have been happier when I received my acceptance letter.
However, Syracuse became the most terrifying place in the world to me after I was raped in Park Point Apartments my freshmen year.
I sought justice first through the Syracuse Police Department. I received a rape kit at Crouse Irving Memorial Hospital (which took five hours), answered the detectives’ questions, showed them Park Point, identified the assailant in a line-up, answered more questions, and waited. Three months later, a letter from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services told me that due to lack of sufficient evidence, my case was closed.
I could have appealed, but I didn’t have any hard evidence besides my rape kit (which was never tested). I gave up with law enforcement.
Another month of paranoia, depression and anxiety passed before a friend of mine connected me to Syracuse’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (OSRR), where I filed my case again.
The Syracuse University and New York State judicial processes are not easy for a rape victim to go through. I did both. Each can take months to reach a decision, and usually those months are flooded with rehashing the event to various people, answering questions that make one feel discouraged and doubted, and waiting… waiting… waiting to hear whether the school or state will punish the rapist. However, SU and New York have very different standards for evidence, so the outcomes for me with these two different justice systems were dramatically different.
Whereas criminal complaints require the highest standard of evidence, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” school disciplinary processes determine whether an allegation is “more likely than not” to have occurred. The University Conduct Board basically determines the result based on if they are at least 51 percent certain that “misconduct,” or rape, happened.
Under Title IX, schools must eliminate a “hostile environment” for any student, including rape victims. If a school does not eliminate the unsafe environment by removing the rapist or their accomplices in the rape from campus, and therefore prevent it from happening again, then they could lose their federal funding. Money makes the university go round, so it’s fair to say this is a great incentive for schools who are concerned about losing their cash flow.
Despite there being available resources, some victims of sexual assault, such as Chelsea*, choose not to report their rape because they don’t want to go through the prolonged emotional strain if nothing will come of it.
Chelsea met a man at a bar off-campus, made-out with him a little, and agreed to go to his apartment. She told him she was a virgin and said she did not want to have sex. The man pinned her down and raped her. Chelsea says she did not go to the police or the university for help because she feared them not believing her.
“I thought I would become one of those stories you hear about in the news about a college girl claiming sexual assault but not being taken seriously because she was drunk and agreed to go to the boy's apartment,” said Chelsea, “even though the consent was not there and there was obvious force involved.”
Syracuse University has an amnesty policy regarding alcohol and drugs: If a student reports domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or sexual assault that they witnessed while they were drunk or high to SU or police, then that student won’t be written up for their use of drugs or alcohol. Often sexual assault on school campuses occurs after a party, and often sexual assaults occur when the victim and potential witnesses are drunk. SU acknowledges this so that they protect victims, assailants and witnesses from being punished for being intoxicated at the time of the incident. This keeps the parties involved honest so that SU can get the real story.
In many cases of sexual assault, rapists trick their victim into taking a drug intended to incapacitate them. Jasmine* returned to her dorm one night after partying with friends from her floor, and a guy offered her what she thought was only marijuana. After smoking what she was given, Jasmine says immediately the room seemed like it was spinning. She says she felt like she had no control of her body. She says her hallucinations made it hard to tell what was happening, including whether the guy who gave her the drug was on top of her.
Jasmine says she remembers regaining consciousness in her bed, but she was uncontrollably screaming with her roommate holding her. Her roommate had seen the guy carrying Jasmine without her pants on back to their room. She says a friend of that guy told the roommate that Jasmine had removed her own pants while she was smoking. The roommate called the Syracuse sexual assault hotline to report the rape. Jasmine says she awoke the next morning to Syracuse Police Department and Department of Public Safety officers interrogating her.
Jasmine decided to prosecute through the SPD to seek justice.
“I was so distraught by everything that happened and frustrated that another person could get out of the incident unscathed,” said Jasmine. “I wanted a punishment in which he understood the pain he put me through.”
Jasmine had the same outcome with the SPD as I did: She did not have enough evidence. Her next move was to contact the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Jasmine’s case took 4 months to reach a decision, but the guy who raped her is currently suspended until she graduates, and his roommates that were bystanders were suspended for one semester.
Jasmine says times were hard when other students’ comments made her doubt herself. They said that nothing would come from the case and that her rape could have been her fault because she was so “out of it.” From personal experience, and from what I have heard from other victims, the aftermath of the assault can be worse than the assault itself. When others blame you, you can’t help but blame yourself. Jasmine says these comments made her almost regret reporting in the first place, but she knew that her assaulter should not get away with rape.
“I knew what he did was wrong and there was no way the university could not recognize that,” said Jasmine. “It was a difficult process to go through and have to relive the memories numerous times, but I am proud of myself for sticking to it.”
Katherine’s drink was drugged at a fraternity house, and the man who she says was trying to advance on her for weeks sexually assaulted her in his room. She says she awoke during the assault, and when he let her leave, she walked back to her dorm alone covered in bruises and injured with stress fractures that still she has to this day. After Katherine made an informal complaint to Syracuse University, she says that the Title IX Coordinator told her she would need evidence if she wanted to press formal charges.
“[The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities] fucked me over,” said Katherine. “They never offered to have police come in. They were just like, ‘Look, if you want to press charges you need to have evidence,’ which I didn’t have. The only people who saw anything were his frat brothers and they’re not going to do anything. They would stand by him.”
Katherine knew SU’s judicial system differed from New York’s, but she says she didn’t file a case with the university because of the way they said she needed more evidence. She says this discouraged her from pursuing it further.
Don McPherson, college football commentator and self-proclaimed feminist, says that many universities and colleges purposefully discourage students from reporting their sexual assault to protect the school’s image. McPherson is currently an activist for the issue of men’s violence against women, but he used to be captain and quarterback of the undefeated 1987 Syracuse football team and second in the Heisman Trophy voting. McPherson says there is pressure on schools to protect their reputation, so they sometimes mislead and discourage women to report their sexual assault.
“Every school is competing for students… They don’t want to come across being the place that actually has the problem [of rape] on campus,” said McPherson. “It’s every campus. There’s not a campus that’s immune to it. There are very few campuses that are very aggressive about it, or very reactionary. But, most cases where we [the school] don’t do anything proactive about it and don’t do anything until something really bad happens… we end up on the front page of the paper.”
McPherson says for these reasons, universities have not held perpetrators or rape culture accountable for sexual assault. Being that, once a victim eventually gathers the courage to seek justice through a formal process, it may add to the feelings of self-doubt or self-blame when a victim’s school discourages them from pressing formal charges.
Supportive friends and family of rape victims make the healing process easier especially when many people don’t believe or even blame the victim. A supportive university could also ameliorate the aftermath for a sexual assault victim, but many university officials are not eager to advertise a high number of rapes on campus. It is my recommendation to victims, or survivors, of sexual assault to tell your story to those who you need to support you. The stigma surrounding rape makes it difficult, but the right people will empathize with you, and they will want to help. You would be surprised by how many students at Syracuse University you stand with, students who have been raped and assaulted. If 1 in 5 women on a college campus are raped, you undoubtably know someone who has experienced the same thing. You are not alone.
To report a sexual assault at Syracuse University, contact the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, Pam Peter, at email@example.com, or call the main office at 315-443-3728. If they don’t follow up with a meeting for you and Peter or the Title IX Coordinator, then call again. I did.
I reported my sexual assault in March 2016, and in August 2016 the man who raped me was expelled. He is legally never allowed on the SU campus again. It’s a very small relief, but relief nonetheless, when you feel like there is nothing more you could have done; when you know you stood up for yourself, no matter the outcome of the case.
*Names were changed to protect the identities of the victims.