MU's Office of Student Conduct handles few sex offense cases

Donell Young works in his office

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated a finding in an academic study on campus service use.

**CLARIFICATION: A sentence has been added to this story to clarify that not all sexual offenses that were counted occurred in the year they were reported.

COLUMBIA — One MU student was expelled for a sex offense in 2012. Another was suspended. Although dozens of sex offenses were reported to campus counselors and police last year, only those two students faced punishment from the Office of Student Conduct.

Assistant Director of Student Life and Student Conduct Director Donell Young said the office received two reports of "non-consensual sexual behavior" last year and both ended in penalties for the offenders. He declined to specify what the behaviors were but said they violated a university code of conduct prohibiting acts ranging from sexual harassment to rape.

Media accounts, statistics and police reports show there were far more than two sex offenses at MU last year. The Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, a campus resource office known as the RSVP Center, received 92 such reports last year. MU Police received 14. **The offenses did not necessarily occur in the year they were reported.

Neither RSVP nor MU Police routinely notify Student Conduct of the incidents, RSVP Center Coordinator Danica Wolf and MU Police Department Capt. Brian Weimer said. Both said they try to follow victims’ wishes rather than advise them to take action in a certain way.

“I provide survivors with options and information and let them make the best decision for their individual situation,” Wolf said.

Wolf said eight victims told her last year that they would go to Student Conduct with their stories. Neither Wolf nor Young know why that office ended up with only two reports.

Young, who was Student Conduct coordinator for nine years and left that position in June, said Student Conduct only handles offenses perpetrated by students, whereas the RSVP Center and MU Police handle cases perpetrated by anyone. Wolf and Weimer declined to say how many of their cases involved students.

A recent national study found that 16 percent of college students were the victims of unwanted sexual contact, but only *2 percent of them told the sexual assault center or the police. At a university of MU’s size, that would be more than 5,000 victimizations in one academic year.

Police agencies such as the MU Police and the Columbia Police Department receive far more reports than Student Conduct. Missouri’s public records law stipulates that sex victims’ names are private until their cases reach court. Because Student Conduct staff are members of the public, they are not entitled to the victims’ names. And if employees at the Student Conduct Office don’t know the victims' names, the office would have no indication that they are students, Weimer said.

Obstacles to pressing charges

The small proportion of reports and penalties at MU mirrors that of the city of Columbia and society at large: Sexual offenders are rarely reported, charged or convicted. And try as they might, campus officials can’t explain why.

The Center for Public Integrity found in 2010 that college campuses across the country regularly fail to impose penalties on students who commit sex offenses.

Culture and law conspire to create inadvertent barriers for victims of sex offenses, especially of rapes, said Tracy Cox of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“We want people to come forward, but when they do, there are so many obstacles placed in front of them,” she said.

She said some victims are discouraged because they know the perpetrator or don’t want to believe they’ve been victimized. Others are afraid they won’t be believed.

“I think we live in a culture — and it's very sad — that a lot of responsibility is placed on the victim, rather than focusing on the accountability of the perpetrator,” Cox said.

MU had its own example of a victim facing backlash last year. A student withdrew from the university after publicly accusing basketball player Michael Dixon of rape. The accusation was followed by a storm of harsh criticism on social media, some of it directed at Dixon but much more at the victim herself.

Another student who accused Dixon of rape in 2010 didn't take her case to court. She said she was afraid she wouldn't be believed and didn't want to deal with harassment from the public.

"When a woman comes forward about sexual assault, she all too often faces skepticism and humiliation," the MU Feminist Student Union wrote in an op-ed in the Missourian last November. "It is hard enough to report your attack without the harassment of your entire community."

Young said in his experience, university students often don’t know what sexual assault really is. Peers and friends minimize the crime or deny it.

“Everyone is still in this mindset that it has to be someone jumping out of the bushes,” he said.

RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said only 9 percent of all rape cases are ever prosecuted. Many lack the hard evidence needed to prosecute because they’re based almost solely on the victim’s assertions.

For example, Boone County assistant prosecutor Tracy Gonzalez said that of 86 sex offense cases received by her office last year, 36 were found to have sufficient evidence to file charges. Of those, 20 ended in convictions.

On the other hand, Young, with the Office of Student Conduct, needs to find only that the student “more likely than not” violated conduct rules. That's a much lower standard of evidence than what is needed by a prosecutor, who must convince a jury the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a Wall Street Journal article from April, a woman whose son was accused of "non-consensual sex" criticized the disciplinary process at his university, which she said showed "scant regard for fundamental fairness (and) due process of law." Media accounts show other universities have faced criticism for the same allegations.

“The vast majority of our cases end up … where the (accused) admits to what happened,” Young said.

Young can’t sentence students to jail but can issue a penalty such as writing a reflection paper or performing community service. Suspension and expulsion, the penalties imposed in the sex offense cases last year, are two of the harshest sanctions he can impose.

Protections become barriers

Research has revealed other possible explanations for why students might not report sex offenses. A 2007 report from the National District Attorneys Association found that a woman was less likely to identify an event as a rape if she had been drinking at the time.

The report also warns prosecutors against subjecting victims to “re-victimization.” With that goal in mind, many authorities go to great lengths not to force victims into the court system, which sometimes leads them to drop charges.

Young said he warns students, in their first meeting, that the information they give him might require him to take action. Once or twice in his nine years at MU, he said, he had to investigate a student even when the victim didn't want to go forward because the accused student could have been a danger to the university community. He said that unfortunately, warning students of that possibility can discourage them from going forward.

Weimer said ideally more students would go to Student Conduct, but he said police don’t want victims to feel pressured.

“The victim is in control of what they want done,” Weimer said. “If a victim comes to us and does not want to do anything legally, we would remind them of (the Student Conduct option).”

MU Police’s annual campus crime report instructs sexual assault victims to seek medical attention and support from counselors but emphasizes that they have no obligation to prosecute.

“You are the person in control when you contact the police department, and you decide how you want the incident handled,” the report reads. “However, IT IS YOUR CHOICE.”

Jennifer Long, director of AEquitas, an organization that helps prosecutors with cases of violence against women, said prosecutors need to strike a balance between preparing victims for what lies ahead and actually dissuading them from pressing charges. Long is a former prosecutor in Pennsylvania.

She said prosecutors should go ahead and charge suspects even if they’re not sure they can win a conviction. Otherwise, many sex offenders go completely unpunished, and many of them go on to commit more offenses.

"That's again why it's so important that we don’t dissuade people from reporting these cases," Long said.

Records and data not easily available

Those who deal with sex crimes admit that the low prosecution rate is a major problem. But the causes and solutions for that low rate are much less clear than they are for other crimes.

Data often doesn’t match up. Agencies have contradicting definitions of crimes, and those definitions change with time. Behavior varies enormously among victims and suspects, and the cases are fraught with emotion, a 2007 study found.

And Student Conduct, unlike the county courthouse, operates in near total secrecy.

A 1998 law requires universities to divulge the outcomes of disciplinary cases in which students were found responsible for violent or sexual offenses. Despite that law, the Office of Student Conduct and the UM System only shared some of the required information at the Missourian’s request and only after a nine-month dispute.

They cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which they said makes all disciplinary records private.

“We believe (the student disciplinary process) functions best in a context of confidentiality,” said records custodian Robert Schwartz.

MU law student Patrick Nolan said universities' “culture of secrecy” discourages people from requesting records because they don’t realize they're public.

Nolan requested the final results of students’ disciplinary proceedings while working as an editor at the Southwest Standard, the student paper at Southwest Missouri State University, which is now Missouri State University in Springfield.

In Nolan’s case, the university released the information only after it lost a lawsuit and received a judicial order.

“It’s in their interest to discourage dissemination of crimes on campus,” Nolan said. “Nobody wants to talk about their dirty laundry."

It took Young and an administrative assistant more than two hours to determine how many sex offense reports the office had received in 2012, a number they later revised.

The MU Office of Student Conduct handles other cases involving students including hazing, disorderly conduct, academic dishonesty and drug offenses.

The search was complicated by the fact that the university didn't place sex offenses in one category until July 2012. At that time, the student code was revised to add four categories: non-consensual sexual behavior, stalking, harassment and invasion of privacy. Non-consensual sexual behavior used to fall under the broad category of a physical abuse violation.

Young said he worked with representatives from all four University of Missouri campuses to include the new category. "We wanted to make the student code more understandable to the average student" and more transparent, he said.

MU Police publishes a campus safety report every year and reports sex offenses and other crimes to the U.S. Department of Education. But the police calculate those numbers differently for another national data house, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

Even the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the primary source for data on victimization in the U.S., lists caveat after caveat when describing sex offense statistics.

Meanwhile, Young said, the Office of Student Conduct is looking at how it can improve. He said he hoped increasing staffing and awareness about the office’s services would help. The office added the position of coordinator in June to assist in handling the volume of cases. Rony Die is the new coordinator.

The office has sent out surveys to see how it can help students better understand what the office does. Young worked with MU Women’s Center to get grant funding from the Department of Justice so that he and other campus officials can attend conferences to learn how to better handle cases of sexual assault. MU has had the grant funding for six  years.

Young said he wished more victims would come forward.

“It troubles me,” he said. “I need to be more sensitive to victims. All law enforcement needs to be more supportive.”

Society in general, he said, needs to become more sensitive to the problem of sexual assault.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

Boone County prosecutors filed charges in almost half of the sex offense cases they received in 2012. They won a conviction in more than half of the cases in which charges were filed.

MU’s Office of Student Conduct received two reports of sex offenses in 2012, far fewer than the MU Police Department or the RSVP Center. According to national studies, many more sex offenses occur annually on U.S. college campuses than are reported.

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