Since Rolling Stone's incredibly damning story about a gang rape at University of Virginia came out last week, the school has spent a lot of time explaining its response to sexual assault. The school has released a total of 11 statements between November 19 and November 22, every one of them pledging to investigate the allegations in the RS article and emphasizing how seriously they take rape. At every turn, that message is undercut by how they've actually handled it in the past.
A student-run media outlet has released an interview they did not long ago with the Dean of Students who handles these cases, in which she blankly admits that almost no one is ever expelled from UVA for rape or sexual assault, even when they admit guilt.
On Saturday, student-run media outlet WUVA online released a video interview they conducted a few weeks ago with Nicole Eramo, an associate Dean of Students who heads the university's Sexual Misconduct Board. Eramo said in the interview that students who have admitted to sexual assault during an informal campus proceeding are often not expelled. And why is that? Because participating in the informal proceeding shows they've already learned their lesson, or something.
In informal proceedings, Eramo explains to the WUVA reporter, "there's no advantage to admitting guilt," unlike formal proceedings, which proceed to a hearing in front of the Sexual Misconduct Board, made up of faculty and students. And so, she adds, "I feel like if a person is willing to come forward in that setting and admit that they violated the policy when there's absolutely no advantage to do so, that that does deserve some consideration. That they're willing to say, 'I've done something wrong and I recognize that and I'm willing to take my licks and deal with it,' that's very important to me. I think that shows a level of understanding of what they did that I don't see in a hearing necessarily."
You might think someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted by a classmate would like to see a little more than "understanding" or a willingness to "take [their] licks," but Eramo insists that's not the case, that most people who report their sexual assaults to the university aren't looking for their alleged assailants to be expelled.
"They're looking to be able to look into the eyes of that other person and say, 'You've wronged me in some way,'" she says. "And they're generally feeling quite satisfied with the fact that the person has admitted that they've done something wrong." And then, a bit later in the interview, "You'd be very surprised how often I hear, 'I do not want to get him in trouble."
Eramo says in the same interview that last year she got 38 reports of sexual assault from students. Of those, just 9 chose to make a complaint, five of them an "informal" complaint and four a "formal" one. That's an enormous drop-off, and Eramo doesn't say whether the other 29 people went to the police or, as the Rolling Stone article suggested might be the case, left her office confused by their options, overwhelmed by what had happened to them, and unable to decide on any kind of action.
There's also the issue of what a "formal" hearing actually entails: Eramo says UVA has investigators who take statements from both the alleged victim, the alleged assailant and any witnesses. They turn in a report to the Sexual Misconduct Board, which is, again, made up of about half students and half faculty. Board members undergo a two-day training to do this job, which is kicked off, Eramo says, with a presentation from a "national expert" named Brett Sokolow.
"Is Sokolow someone who knows the first thing about rape and sexual assault?" I hear you asking hopefully. Well, kind of: he's an attorney, as well as the president and CEO of an outfit called the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a "risk management consulting firm" that works with a lot of colleges and universities on how to quietly and speedily handle their rape and sexual assault cases. That is, when he's not doing things like arguing that some rape cases are really just "drunken sexual hook-ups" where one party is being unfairly punished. If a "jury" of students and faculty without any kind of legal training are being trained by someone whose admitted goal is keeping college sexual assault cases as quiet as possible, can it be any surprise that this is the result?
Eramo seems quite satisfied that the way UVA handles rape is just dandy, even though, as the WUVA reporter repeatedly points out to her, it's led to a system of dual justice, in which plagiarism and cheating are sometimes punished by expulsion but rape never is. The longest suspension for a rape case that Eramo can recall is two years.
"I'm still — I just do not understand," the WUVA reporter says, somewhere near the end of what becomes an increasingly uncomfortable interview. "You've said that you've answered the question, but I don't think that you have. How is it that a student has admitted guilt, and yet you see that a student should and does return to grounds with their victims?"
"I think I answered your question," Eramo says. She sits there with a pleasant, confused smile as the young reporter asks a series of very clear, very pointed follow-up questions: Isn't it damaging for rape survivors to have to see their assailants every day? Would expelling rapists serve as a deterrent?
"I don't know that it would," Eramo responds. "Because I don't believe that they think they'll get caught."
And even if they do get caught, well, it doesn't sound like they need to worry much about that either.
Image via Flickr/Phil Roeder