Women who report sexual violence on college campuses seldom see their accused attackers arrested and almost never see them convicted, according to a Chicago Tribune survey of several Midwestern universities.
The survey of six schools in Illinois and Indiana found that police investigated 171 reported sex crimes since fall 2005, with 12 resulting in arrests and four in convictions. Only one of the convictions stemmed from a student-on-student attack, the most common type of assault.
The rate of arrests and convictions is far below the average for rapes reported nationally.
The trend leaves untold number of college women feeling betrayed and vulnerable, believing that their allegations are not taken seriously. The Tribune's findings also raise fresh questions about the way college administrators and law enforcement officials handle the allegations, even as the Obama administration calls attention to the issue with a series of initiatives and investigations aimed at better protecting students from sex crimes.
Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, said the Tribune's findings are in keeping with anecdotal evidence her office has gathered from victims.
"I say this, albeit, with a very heavy and saddened heart," Ali said. "These kinds of data are illustrative of the disturbing and alarming trend we are seeing across this country."
For its survey, the Tribune selected public and private colleges with varying student enrollments in Illinois and Indiana. The Tribune compiled its information from crime data that campuses are required to report under federal law, and then checked with college administrators, prosecutors and others to obtain arrest and conviction information.
Three of the six schools surveyed by the Tribune had zero convictions from their 63 reported cases. For instance, the University of Notre Dame has had 34 reported sex crimes during the last six school years with four arrests and no convictions, and Northwestern University had 21 reported cases with no arrests or convictions at its main campus in Evanston.
Indiana University has seen only one conviction from its 69 allegations of sexual attacks reported to police during that time period. On Thursday, a Monroe County judge accepted Hai Yu's guilty plea to sexual battery and criminal confinement, making him the only one convicted of a student-on-student sex crime in the Tribune survey.
The university's numbers do not surprise Margaux Janda, a suburban Chicago woman who accused a fellow Indiana student of rape after she had a night of drinking in 2006. Police declined to press charges against her alleged attacker; the university eventually suspended him for a year.
Although the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigated her complaint during the Bush administration and found that the university acted "promptly and appropriately," Janda still left the school rather than share a campus with the man.
"Part of me wonders why someone would even bother making a report," she said. "What's the point in going to police if they don't do anything about it? It almost makes me feel worse."
Kim Lonsway, director of research for the nonprofit group End Violence Against Women International, worries that low arrest and prosecution rates could discourage future victims from coming forward, leaving them with the impression that reporting a sex crime is pointless and only serves to cause further pain and humiliation.
"If you're a parent or student looking at those numbers, it suggests rapists can commit their crimes with impunity," she said.
The Department of Education currently is investigating a number of colleges for how they have handled sex offense reports, including Yale University, Ohio State University and Notre Dame. The department began looking into the pre-eminent Catholic university in November following a Tribune story about a student who killed herself shortly after telling campus police that a male student there sexually attacked her.
The department this year also began a new initiative to push educators, police and others to aggressively pursue reports of sexual violence on campuses, where nearly 1 in 5 women will be a victim of an attempted or actual sexual assault during their college careers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
By their very nature, campus sex crimes are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute. They often involve alcohol and conflicting accounts on whether the physical interaction was consensual, making it difficult for law enforcement to sort out the truth.
About 1 in every 4 rapes reported nationally results in an arrest, statistics show. Of those arrested, about 62 percent are convicted, according to a Justice Department study. The FBI, which annually compiles crime statistics, does not track arrest and conviction rates for sex offenses on college campuses.
The Tribune's analysis found that at the six Midwestern universities surveyed, law enforcement made one arrest for about every 14 alleged sex crimes -- including rape, attempted rape, sexual battery and sodomy -- reported on campus. The conviction rate of those arrested was 33 percent.
Roger Canaff, a former prosecutor who now trains and advises military prosecutors on how to handle sex crimes, said he believes that the newspaper's numbers mirror arrest and conviction rates at other colleges and universities.
"Unfortunately, I think you'd find the same thing at campuses across the country," Canaff said. "It's something that needs to be changed, but it's not an easy fix."
Society compounds the problem with antiquated views about what constitutes a sex crime and who commits it, experts said. The public -- and therefore potential jurors -- is generally comfortable with the idea of convicting a masked rapist jumping out of a dark alley. It's harder, they said, to convict a clean-cut college student of assaulting a classmate after a night of drinking.
It's against that backdrop that prosecutors and detectives decide whether to move forward with a case. Their hesitance often is reflected in police investigations, where victims say they frequently feel like they must prove their innocence.
"It's not so much that successful convictions cannot be obtained; it's just that these crimes are complex and require enhanced awareness and training given the dynamics involved," said Gary Margolis, managing partner at Margolis Healy & Associates, which focuses on higher education safety.
The University of Illinois, Chicago noted in a 2010 report to the federal government that "it has been very difficult to get sexual assault cases" prosecuted by the Cook County state's attorney's office. UIC filed the report as part of a federal grant program to reduce dating violence and sexual assaults on college campuses.
Rebecca Gordon, director of UIC's Women's Leadership Resource Center and the Campus Advocacy Network, said the state's attorney's office has not prosecuted a single sexual assault that occurred on campus during the last six years -- a fact confirmed by prosecutors.
"It has been very challenging," she said. "Our police are aggressive. We don't have a problem with our police making arrests."
The Tribune asked UIC police June 6 for their arrest numbers, but the university has not yet provided them. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign provided the data for its campus.
Gordon said UIC staff, police and county prosecutors will be undergoing additional advanced training this month on investigating and prosecuting "alcohol-facilitated" sexual assault cases.
"We're making progress," she said. "I can't say we have gotten any more cases through felony review, but they are aware of the issues."
Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, said prosecutors do not treat campus sexual attacks differently than any other sexual assault case in deciding whether to file charges.
At Illinois State University, police handled 20 reported sex offenses, but the victims in slightly less than half of those cases declined to press charges, records show.
Rather than endure police investigations, some students have pursued the matters with their universities' administrations. As part of a two-tiered justice system offered at colleges and universities nationwide, administrative hearings provide students with a private, less demanding counterpart to the criminal justice system -- though national studies suggest women who opt for the internal process face disappointing outcomes nearly as often as those who go through law enforcement.
ISU police Chief Aaron Woodruff said victims sometimes decline to move forward at all because they are concerned about seeing the offender around campus or fear being ostracized by friends who know him.
"You will see in our cases that the victims themselves don't wish to prosecute and don't want to relive the experience," he said. "There are a lot of social issues because they know the acquaintances. ... It can affect a lot of their friendships and other things in their lives."
Woodruff said campus officers take every reported sexual assault seriously and conduct aggressive investigations.
While investigating a 2007 rape allegation, police used an "eavesdropping device" to secretly record a conversation between the victim and the suspect, records show. Woodruff said the use of such equipment is rare because it relies on the victim's willingness to participate.
"You are basically asking them to confront the offender, and if they are not willing, we will not force them," he said.
At Notre Dame, four people have been arrested during the last six school years for sex crimes, three on misdemeanor charges and one felony rape. Eventually, charges were dropped against the defendants in all four cases.
Dennis Brown, the university's spokesman, said campus police sent another 16 cases to the prosecutor's office during that time, but the St. Joseph County, Ind., prosecutor's office declined to bring charges.
"Our sincere hope is that in every case of sexual misconduct, justice will prevail -- that those who are guilty face appropriate punishment and those who have been violated find hope and healing," Brown said.
St. Joseph Prosecutor Michael Dvorak told the Tribune that in many college cases, students file police reports in good faith but do not understand what rises to the level of a sex offense. In a lot of cases, he said, the women do not realize that rape means the victim was compelled to submit by force or threat of force.
Although Indiana statutes also state an individual cannot knowingly consent to having sex if they're drunk, Dvorak said students must reach a high level of intoxication before any sexual activity crosses that criminal threshold. He has seen rape reports in which students say they had "two or three beers and then were talked into having sex," but he does not consider that a crime under the law, he said.
"We want to prosecute people who rape women. And we have," he said. "But college campuses present a unique set of challenges. The students are drinking and doing things at night that they normally wouldn't do when class gets out at 3:30 in the afternoon. But those ingredients, per se, don't mean that a rape has occurred."
Some families and victim advocates, however, have taken issue with how Notre Dame police and Dvorak's office respond to and investigate sexual attacks on the South Bend campus. They have criticized the agencies for, among other things, failing to gather key evidence, not trying to build winnable cases and waiting more than a week to interview suspects.
The Tribune earlier recounted the frustrations of Tom and Mary Seeberg, a suburban Chicago couple, and of an East Coast family who said Notre Dame failed to adequately investigate their daughters' allegations last school year. The Seebergs' daughter, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg, killed herself nine days after reporting to police that she was sexually attacked.
Dvorak declined to file charges in both cases.
After reading about those cases, another woman, a 21-year-old St. Mary's College student, spoke with the Tribune about her experience. Her story is reminiscent of many reported sex offenses on college campuses, as it involves another student, alcohol and an alleged sexual attack that resulted in no arrest.
The woman and other witnesses say she had passed out in a male friend's room at Notre Dame after she and her date had been kicked out of a social event at nearby St. Mary's for being intoxicated. She said she awoke a few hours later to find a third male student -- who did not live in the room -- on top of her. He then took her to his own room, where she says she tried to fight off the attack until she passed out again.
A friend later found her with blood running down her legs in a dormitory hallway, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Tribune.
The woman reported the incident to campus police two days later and consented to a DNA test done at a local hospital.
She quickly began to have doubts about having gone to police, she said. Witnesses submitted written statements via email, but campus police never questioned them face to face, those witnesses said. Her alleged attacker told school officials that she had been the aggressor and he had woken up in a room that wasn't his own to find her kissing him, a document shows.
Authorities declined to file charges, and Notre Dame administrators cleared the alleged attacker of any wrongdoing through the school's disciplinary process.
The male student said in an email to the Tribune that the accusations caused him "great pain given my unblemished record."
"Through a very thorough and detailed process, it was confirmed on several levels that allegations levied against me were unfounded and without merit," he said.
The woman's father called the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a high-ranking Notre Dame administrator, to express his anger. After listening to his concerns, Doyle suggested they pray together over the telephone, the father said.
"We're as Catholic as they come," the woman's mother said. "But are you serious? Pray on this? That was not good enough."
The woman now wonders if she should have ever reported the incident to police. An estimated 95 percent of college students who are victimized do not report sexual-related crimes to law enforcement, according to a study funded by the Justice Department.
"It's a long, painful process, and in the end, nothing happened," she said. "The only way a boy would be guilty is if he said, 'Oh, yes, I did rape her."'
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