Survey shows lack of student trust in College’s handling of sexual assault reports

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COURTESY PHOTO/WM.EDU

According to Time magazine’s Person of the Year feature, in 2017, the #MeToo movement has served as an “umbrella of solidarity” for millions of sexual violence survivors to tell their stories. It began with African-American activist Tarana Burke years ago but entered the forefront of national dialogue last October, when multiple actresses accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. Millions of men and women followed suit, sharing their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment on social media and national television.

#MeToo has the country talking about how our cultures, institutions and policies are failing sexual violence survivors. While national discourse has now given issues of sexual misconduct a prominent seat at the table, student voices have been largely omitted from the dialogue. Since college students are disproportionately affected by these issues as reported by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, we believe that their perspectives should figure prominently in these discussions.

The Teaching, Research and International Policy Project at the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations fielded a snap poll of students at the College of William and Mary for two weeks last December. The survey sample includes 781 students and is demographically representative of the student body in terms of class year, gender and Greek affiliation. 712 of these students chose to answer the questions discussed in this article.

Our survey found that students at the College trust nonprofit organizations to properly handle reports of sexual violence much more than they trust the police or the College’s administration. Students also report relatively low levels of confidence in the College’s ability to independently maintain current protections for sexual violence survivors in the face of changing federal Title IX guidance.

We asked students at the College how much they trust the institution, police and nonprofits to properly handle someone reporting sexual violence. This question was taken from a January 2014 YouGov survey in partnership with the Huffington Post. The College administration garners the lowest rates of high trust and the highest rates of total distrust among students. In fact, students trust police and law enforcement more than they trust the College. Students instead overwhelmingly place their trust in nonprofit organizations that provide rape counseling.

When asked about nonprofits, 76 percent of students reported a lot of confidence, 22 percent a little confidence and two percent no confidence at all. In the College and Williamsburg community, these nonprofit resources include Avalon and the Haven.

When asked about police, 27 percent of students reported a lot of confidence, 56 percent a little confidence and 16 percent no confidence at all. Due to survey limitations, results do not distinguish between the William and Mary Police Department and other city, county and state law enforcement institutions. As these departments vary in issue-specific training and relationships with the student body, variation in reported overall trust in police may be a result of varied trust in individual departments. The College’s status as a predominantly white university might also influence campus-wide trust in police. Finally, when asked about the College, only 13 percent of students reported a lot of confidence, 58 percent reported a little confidence and 28 percent reported no confidence at all.

In September 2017, the Department of Education rescinded Title IX enforcement guidelines for universities concerning campus sexual misconduct. The DOE replaced guidelines previously set by U.S. President Obama with interim guidance urging a higher burden of proof for universities investigating sexual misconduct reports.

Many activists, advocates and sexual violence survivors criticize this change as a rollback of critical protections, signaling an end to Obama-era vigilance regarding universities mishandling student reports of sexual violence. Considering these policy changes, we asked students about their confidence in the College administration’s ability to independently maintain protections for sexual violence survivors were Title IX to be further relaxed or removed in the future.

Over one-third of students have little to no confidence in the College administration’s ability to independently maintain protections for sexual violence survivors. One-tenth are neutral. Just half of students report any confidence at all in the administration’s ability to maintain independent protections.

All students were asked to select their level of confidence from very confident, somewhat confident, neutral, less confident, not at all confident and do not know. Our data find that upperclassmen are less confident in the administration than freshmen, and women are less confident in the administration than men.

28 percent of freshmen say they are very confident in the administration’s ability to maintain independent protections, which is more than double the 13 percent of seniors and 12 percent of juniors who report high confidence. Seniors and juniors answer “less confident” at more than twice the rate of freshmen, and “not confident at all” at three times the rate of freshmen. Seniors are the least neutral of the student body, reporting just under half the neutrality levels of all other classes.

This gap may indicate that more experience with the administration’s handling of sexual violence lowers student confidence in the administration. Upperclassmen have had more time to observe the administration because they have attended the college for a longer period of time. Additionally, this trust differential might be influenced by administration policy changes over the last four years. These include adding relevant positions, such as a Title IX investigator and sexual violence prevention specialists, implementing several task forces and committees and moving to a new adjudication process.

According to the William and Mary Campus Climate Survey and RAINN Campus Sexual Violence Statistics, women generally experience sexual violence and harassment at higher rates than men on campus. This trend suggests that like upperclassmen, students who identify as female will have more exposure to the College administration’s handling of sexual misconduct. Our survey found that women answered “very confident” at less than half the rate of men, while they answered “less confident” and “not at all confident” at nearly double the rate of men. In addition, men exhibited more neutrality than women on this issue.

While transgender and non-binary students experience higher rates of sexual violence, we are not able to report statistically meaningful results from their perspectives due to the low number of non-binary and transgender survey respondents. According to End Rape on Campus, people of color experience sexual violence at higher rates. Due to the limitations of our survey, we are not able to report statistically meaningful information concerning race. We sincerely hope that we will be able to improve in these two areas in the future.

We find great value in continuing to ask these questions on campus over the next few years to determine the effect of past and future administration policy changes. If campus is our second home, then students should have the right to institutions we trust, especially to handle issues as important as sexual violence. As graduating seniors, we hope that diverse groups of current and future students at the College will continue this conversation and hold their institutions accountable to student voices.

Email Nicole Cook and Christen Scalfano at [email protected] and [email protected]

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