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Farahnaz Mohammed 

Northwestern students raise awareness about sexual assault in an annual march.

White House tackles campus sexual assault

by Farahnaz Mohammed
June 05, 2014


Information taken from

How a Title IX complaint at the federal level works. Click to enlarge.


Farahnaz Mohammed / MEDILL

Pressure by activists have provoked responses by institutions and the government.


Data from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights

The White House's tackling campus sexual assault stirs praise and controvershe recent release of the White House report Not Alone focuses on practices to prevent campus sexual assault but it is igniting heated debate about the extent of such assaults and what role the federal government should have in combating them.

One in five women reportedly experiences sexual assault during her college career, according to the report. But the vast majority of cases may go unreported due to fear of reprisals, psychological trauma and a sense of shame about the assault, among other factors, the report suggests.

This is one of the first undertakings of a new White House initiative – the White House Task Force to Prevent Students from Sexual Assault – created early this year.

The report calls for improvement in how institutions respond to students’ sexual assault claims, and clarifies federal sanctions to ensure adequate responses. Lack of adequate response could result in a federal investigation by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

According to statistics provided by the OCR to Medill Reports on Wednesday, the number of Title IX violations reported rose significantly after the report was released at the end of April. In October 2013 to April 2014, reports ranged from 4-9 per month. May, the first month after the report was issued, brought the office 13 reports.

The Title IX statute protects students against discrimination on the basis of sex. Underneath this wider mandate is the issue of gender-based violence, which includes campus sexual violence.

As one step toward prevention, the White House plans to distribute Campus Climate Surveys to gather more data from students regarding the scope of the problem, possibly making survey completion mandatory by 2016. The report also encourages schools to institute prevention programs that promote bystander intervention and improve response and transparency by campus administrators.

The debate surrounding the report focuses not only on practices for prevention but on the danger of allowing false allegations if administrators do not maintain stringent standards for investigating claims of sexual assault or rape.


Confronting the problem 

Victims have shared harrowing stories on survivor group websites such as Safer Campus. Victims report that they still see their attackers on campus. They confront open doubts from administrators and authorities. They write about suffering from crippling psychological repercussions that can impede academic success.

Abby Panozzo was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006 when she was raped by a visitor, someone her friends had vouched for, at an apartment during a party.

In a phone interview, Panozzo described her ordeal of filing a report with local police, who ultimately did not charge the accused. Panozzo said she felt she was blamed for her assault in initial interviews and her experience working with a detective just added to her trauma.

“He kept calling me in for questioning in the police department. And kept saying ‘this is a he-said, she-said case’ and ‘you know, he’s really upset, you’ve really upset him and he’s really distraught by all this and he’s really remorseful,’” Panozzo said. She recalled asking him, "Well, what about the gynecological pictures that were taken. There was evidence of cervical bruising, I had lacerations and I had extensive bleeding after it happened and I sought medical treatment and had it documented. And he said that the injuries I had could have been caused from 'rough sex.' Those were his exact words.”

Subsequently, evidence gathered during a medical examination from Panozzo’s case was reported lost when she later attempted to retrieve copies, she said.

Now an advocate for victims of sexual violence, Panozzo said she doesn’t consider her experience as exceptional.

“The majority of survivors that I speak to, I have yet to hear someone say, “Yes, my case was handled well,” said Panozzo, who now lives in Massachusetts and works with medical software.

As an advocate, Panozzo volunteered with PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment) during college and is now a board member at SurvJustice, one of the organizations listed as a national resource on the White House Task Force's website.

Response is a key issue in a civil lawsuit filed by a student against Northwestern University for "deliberate indifference" in response to her complaint following unwanted sexual advances off campus by philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.

In the lawsuit, the student said Ludlow first bought her alcohol even though she was underage. He refused to take her home when asked and the next morning, she woke up with Ludlow embracing her in his apartment, her suit alleges. The case is pending.

In a response to the lawsuit, the university stated that the student's complaint resulted in sanctions: Ludlow’s pay was docked, he lost an honorary position and he had to undergo sensitivity training.

However, though the investigation by the university found he “had engaged in unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances,” he remained teaching and a tenured member of the faculty, according to Northwestern’s response to the lawsuit.

After a protest organized by students on March 4, university spokesman Al Cubbage announced that Ludlow's winter quarter class was cancelled. Cubbage later announced Ludlow would not be teaching for spring quarter 2014.

The student followed up on the lawsuit against Northwestern with a separate civil suit against Ludlow.

Ludlow has disputed the student’s account in a statement released through his attorney Kristin Case, according to The Daily Northwestern. He also has filed defamation lawsuits against media outlets that used the word "rape" in their reporting of the lawsuit.

Repeated attempts to contact attorneys for both the plaintiff and Ludlow were unsuccessful.

Working towards a solution

Laura Stuart, the Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention Coordinator at Northwestern University, said she is pleased about the White House’s planned action.

“In terms of data, I feel like we need to have better data, more standardized data about how much this is happening on campus,” said Stuart. “I think it would be amazing if every school did a standardized survey at regular intervals so that we could actually say, we’ve all done the same survey and this is what we’re finding.”

Additionally, Stuart pointed out the many ways in which institutions can assist by taking a more progressive stance on prevention tactics. Many prevention tactics now are aimed at potential victims: women are warned to watch their drinks, warned about drinking to excess and advised not to walk unaccompanied late at night.

But sensible advice doesn't address other concerns. "The number one myth that is reinforced is that victims are somehow responsible for being assaulted,” Stuart said.


The guidelines and report released by the White House at the end of April instruct universities to operate on the principle of believing the survivor. Nonetheless, the Task Force’s recommendations are controversial.

The recommendations seem innocuous. It is a common complaint that victim-blaming and disbelief on the part of authorities is a significant obstacle for many who report sexual assault.

Skepticism on the part of investigators, though traumatic, does not always emerge from outright malice or lack of sensitivity. Because of the nature of the crime, many incidents involve alcohol, making testimonies incomplete or unclear, according to the report.

Psychological effects of sexual assault can include an unpredictable emotional state and an inability to accurately recall the incident. Accounts of a sexual assault may change over time; but while this would normally indicate an unreliable witness, this may not necessarily mean a victim is fabricating the details of account.

Jen Walsh, vice president of Victim Services at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, spoke of the varying reactions of victims to rape – some are emotionless, some deny the incident entirely and some are inconsolable.

“That goes back to the fact that people respond differently to trauma,” said Walsh. “There’s been a significant amount of research regarding the neurobiology of trauma and this information has been pushed out to local sexual assault service providers and victim advocates and physicians and law enforcement, so it’s something that the field is actively trying to educate folks on.

“There are actual biological and neurological reasons that people act the way that they do.”

Another issue that arises from the guidelines, dissenters point out, is creation of a precedent for presumed guilt has dangerous implications for men who are falsely accused of assault or rape. While the number of false rape (SEXUAL ASSAULT) accusations is comparatively small (standing at a reported 5.9 percent, according to a 2010 study), the effect of a false accusation can be devastating.

Caleb Warner's story is one example. He was accused of sexual assault by another student while studying at the University of North Dakota in 2009. Found guilty by administration, he was banned from campus for three years.

After continued pressure from Caleb’s family, the case was re-opened by the university and Warner was cleared of all charges. Citing the trauma of the incident as his reason, however, Warner did not return to the university.

Attorney Wendy Kaminer has been outspoken in her concerns about the guidelines released by the White House. In a written commentary for WBUR, posted on the Boston radio station’s website, Kaminer stated that such strong emphasis on the survivor in proceedings “practically obliterates the due process rights of the accused.”

“When you categorically presume the good faith, infallible memories and entirely objective perspectives of self-identified victims, you dispense with the need for cumbersome judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings and an adversary model of justice,” she wrote.

Additionally, sexual violence against men and LGBTQ groups are neglected areas with little data, according to Stuart.

Reason to hope

“I see a recognition at the federal level of all the efforts of grassroots movements at the municipal and state level kind of coming together,” said Panozzo in regard to the Task Force. “Voices are starting to be heard and you see the states starting to respond as well.”

“The White House Task Force has helped continue that dialogue that’s needed to occur for a long time now,” Panozzo said.