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Investigate and Prevent Sexual Assault at DU

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Dear Chancellor Rebecca Chopp and Acting Chancellor Gregg Kvistad,

We the undersigned are writing to express our disappointment with the university’s alarmingly blithe public and inter-campus statements in spring and summer, 2014, regarding its handling of Title IX sexual assault-related issues. In light of the well-documented patterns of mishandling of sexual assault at other campuses, the time is right to open a more meaningful and perhaps uncomfortable conversation at DU, and to urge some fresh, proactive decision-making regarding our programs and policies in this area.

As part of the Obama administration's efforts to bring transparency to the growing problem of sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, on May 1st, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a list of colleges and universities being investigated for possible Title IX violations. On May 12th, Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters program spotlighted the Colorado campuses that appeared on the the list, and DU issued a brief public statement on that program:

"As has been reported, 'The government emphasized the list was about investigations of complaints, not judgments. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there was 'absolutely zero presumption' of guilt.'   An individual did not agree with the findings of one investigation at the University of Denver and exercised their right to file a complaint with the [Department of Education's] Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The University is cooperating fully with the OCR. The University of Denver is on this list of open cases while the Office of Civil Rights makes its final determination on this one case.   Because it has been brought to our attention that attorney John Clune, who is representing individuals in a number of these cases filed with the OCR, will be a participant in this discussion on 'Colorado Matters,' we respectfully decline your invitation to participate.   We initially agreed to share in an open discussion regarding our efforts to ensure that we continue to handle all instances of this kind fairly, appropriately and accurately. Because of federal privacy laws, out of our respect for the privacy of the individual who reached out to the Office of Civil Rights, and out of our respect for the processes of the OCR, we will not discuss any issues directly or indirectly related to this complaint prior to the final determination of this one case by the Office of Civil Rights."

We believe that DU's defensive Colorado Matters statement was a shameful way to handle these allegations. Legal distancing minimized the real cost of sexual assault to our DU community and risked implying that there is nothing worth discussing, and no questions worth raising in this area. A July 9, 2014, Denver Post article suggests that there is, at the very least, another, troubling side to the story. No matter what factors prompted DU’s decision not to participate in the public conversation and instead issue distancing statements, we believe the administration missed a public opportunity to highlight what we are doing to tackle a serious problem, and what we aim to do in the future to improve our response to sexual violence.  DU's administration was called out on the CPR show as an example of a Colorado campus that is not handling this issue well, and was publicly criticized--we fear rightly--for creating an environment in which students do not feel confident that their allegations will be taken seriously and consistently handled with care and justice.  Whether or not this is accurate, the allegations made in this case are profoundly troubling, and dismissive press releases do little to dispel this damning characterization of our administration and the staff charged with oversight and action.  

Although the DU public statement to Colorado Matters--and statements within the DU community on May 6th and July 8th--framed the university’s Title IX problem as simply the complaint of one disgruntled person, we know that sexual violence is a widespread problem on all college campuses.  Studies suggest that between 1 and 5 and 1 in 4 women experience some form of sexual violence during their college years.  Importantly, a number of college men also experience sexual violence. In this larger context, it is an injustice to frame this problem as an isolated case with a lone disgruntled victim.  National statistics suggest that this problem affects a sizeable portion of campus populations and is vastly underreported.  The staff at our Center for Advocacy, Prevention, and Empowerment (CAPE) is well aware of this reality, as are faculty who teach (and learn) about issues of sexual violence in classes. Students themselves repeatedly recount personal stories of sexual assault that they or someone they know have experienced. We know, both anecdotally and empirically, that this is more than an isolated incident.  And even one victim is too many.  Given that we have started to address the problem of student drinking and how it impacts our DU community and academics- including proposing Friday classes--we find it especially shortsighted that we are not according the same level of importance to the discussion about sexual violence.

We urge you to take this opportunity to address the issue of sexual violence on our campus more proactively.  We have too long heard how under-resourced, and in some cases behind the known best practices we are on this campus. Now is an ideal time to change the culture at DU so that we all understand the significance of Title IX and our legal responsibility vis-a-vis the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  We can create an educational environment in which we are all committed to reducing this violence on our campus community, and in which we can confidently entrust our administration to make sure victims of sexual assault feel knowledgeable and supported enough to come forward.  We envision a campus environment where students are encouraged to report incidents and seek available help for their trauma.

In light of the above, we are calling on the DU administration to reverse course, and to become a recognized leader in safeguarding our campus community from these incidents of violence that have become disturbingly normalized, marginalized, dismissed, and often rendered invisible.  

It is time for DU to make the following improvements to our handling of sexual assault-related issues:

  • Proactive, comprehensive assessment of where we are and where our strengths and weaknesses lie with regard to prevention, education, investigation, and service. Following the University of Colorado at Boulder’s lead, we recommend commissioning a full-scale external review from a firm specializing in Title IX compliance, and following the recommendations of their report. Such a review can determine whether different Title IX responsibility areas across campus can be better coordinated, and recommend how compliance can be built into the uppermost administrative power structure. (For more on CU’s post-report decisions, see here.)
  • Reform and upgrade of our infrastructural commitments to effectively address sexual assault. In recent correspondence with other universities on the Front Range, we’ve learned that full-scale infrastructure entails at least the following:
    • A standalone investigative office, from which trained investigators, rather than the existing hearing boards, pursue sexual assault cases through a process which is made transparent to the university community. Hearing boards are widely understood in the field as ineffective, and often retraumatizing for victims. [Fn]
    • Full-scale support services for victims and survivors. All persons impacted by sexual assault should have access to fully trained and licensed, victim assistance counselors who understand both the reporting process and the mental health issues related to these issues. As it stands, we currently have a patchwork of general counseling services (not necessarily sexual assault-trained), a volunteer hotline network, and reference to outside services.
    • Robust prevention programming. We are grateful for the prevention programs we have had on campus over the last decade, but they are perpetually functioning on a thin and inconsistent base of financial and administrative support. We need a fully integrated prevention program that brings students up to speed in all areas and helps finally decrease the rates of sexual assault and change the cultural climate on this campus.
    • Meaningful training for faculty and staff regarding sexual assault, our university’s reporting and investigation process, and the programs available on campus.
  • More transparency to the campus community about how DU handles victims’ complaints. Although our sexual assault policy is made explicit on our DU website, the procedure for making a complaint, the process for adjudicating the complaint, and information about who exactly makes these determinations is nebulous to both faculty and students.  We need to know that our administration is doing everything it can to make sure victims feel safe and knowledgeable.  We do not have faith that students feel safe coming forward, much less going through the process. It is not clear to faculty or students how cases are adjudicated and by whom.
  • Mandatory trainings regarding consent and Title IX for everyone across campus.  These should not be voluntary or episodic, nor should these be reduced to a few minutes during first year orientation.  We can do better, and we need more explicit discussions, policies, and education regarding this issue.  
  • More resources for CAPE.  We know this office has always struggled, and has been consistently underfunded and under-resourced.  We as faculty are continually frustrated to see the strain this work has put on the many directors and iterations of this office over the years.  We are frustrated that we are delegating such important responsibilities--namely victim advocacy and preventative education and outreach--to only one or two staff members who cannot possibly do this issue justice with the meager resources provided them. 

It is not too late for DU to become a leader in this area.  With this issue front and center in national media, and with DU’s reputation and mission centered on the “public good,” we can, and must, do better.  Now is the time.



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