Based on the reported number of incidents, the University of Minnesota Duluth campus would seem to be relatively free of sexual violence. The number of sexual assaults reported to the federal government from 2008 to 2010: three. But an eight-month investigation by two Statesman reporters found a different story: Hundreds of women every year, according to surveys commissioned by the university, said they had been sexually assaulted.
In 2010 and 2011, as many as 650 female UMD students out of 11,233 - or one in 17 – said they had experienced attempted or completed sexual assault, the university surveys found.
Hannah Rivenburgh, public health associate at the Minnesota Department of Health, said that low numbers of official sexual assault reports indicate a culture in which victims aren’t comfortable reporting.
“We get really concerned when it says zero,” Rivenburgh said. “That’s quite common, and that’s pretty scary because it means that there’s not a culture on campus in which it’s accepted and OK to come forward and report.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) commissioned a 2007 study that found 16 percent of rape victims will ever report their assault.
“Then if you see numbers like one and two (reported incidents),” Rivenburgh said, “that’s when we get really worried that this issue isn’t being talked about on campuses.”
All universities that receive federal funding must report alleged sexual assaults and other crime statistics to the Department of Education under the Clery Act, passed by Congress in 1998.
Although it is typical for reported numbers to be low, UMD’s report of three sexual assaults from 2008 to 2010 is lower than at many schools of similar size. Comparable institutions in the region reported an average of 8.2 per year over the same time period. Some schools in the region showed numbers as high as 14, 15 and 20 from 2008-10.
UMD does not require incoming students to participate in sexual assault prevention education, except for a 10-minute segment in a video during freshman orientation week. The video doesn’t tell about Duluth-specific resources or what to do if you are sexually assaulted.
Some other colleges in the region—including The College of St. Scholastica, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and St. Cloud State University—offer more extensive education.
Rivenburgh said that the reported numbers almost always increase when schools offer prevention efforts that encourage students to come forward.
CRUCIAL EVIDENCE DESTROYED
A UMD student said that when she was raped on a Friday in the spring of her sophomore year in 2011, she didn’t know what to do.
She said she waited until Monday to call UMD Health Services. She was then informed of forensic and medical testing that is provided at local hospitals free of charge.
By this time she had showered, and crucial evidence had been destroyed.
“Before it happened I did not (know what to do), which is why I did not go get a rape kit or anything,” said Stacy, a pseudonym, as the Statesman does not generally identify victims of sexual assault. “I’ve heard of them, obviously, but I didn’t know details.”
Stacy isn’t alone. Another alleged rape victim interviewed during this investigation, “Marissa” said she didn’t know how to report an assault.
“I had absolutely no idea (what to do),” she said. “Who researches this stuff when it hasn’t happened to them? Because no one thinks it’s going to.”
TEACHING POLICY ‘NOT USEFUL’
UMD was told by the federal government as recently as April 2011 that it should provide sexual assault preventive education. The Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to campuses nationwide offering guidance on how schools should educate students on sexual violence prevention and handle investigations of alleged assault.
However, UMD still has not followed some of the recommendations presented in the “Dear Colleague” letter, which said all schools should implement a preventive education program for their new students and that “schools should take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment and violence.”
Vice Chancellor of Student Life Lisa Erwin oversees the Office of Student Conduct, which handles allegations of student-on-student sexual assault.
“I think these ideas of teaching about sexual violence—what it is—are really, really, really important and where to report in general, certainly,” Erwin said. “But I don’t think it’s useful to teach people policy and procedure.”
During UMD’s move-in weekend, the university asks the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) to present three sexual assault workshops that up to 35 students per workshop may attend voluntarily.
But those are voluntary workshops, and they address the issue to a small fraction of new students each year. Last year, UMD saw an enrollment of 2,105 new students.
When asked about mandatory education for incoming students, Cat Riley, coordinator of the Office of Student Conduct, and Erwin both said incoming students are unlikely to listen if policy is pushed on them.
“My experience over many years working with college students is that they are not going to read all the policies,” Erwin said. “I think students need to be equipped with where to find things.”
Riley said incoming students are hit with a flood of information and they are probably not worried about student conduct policies.
“I think there are a lot of avenues for students to know where (sexual assault) information is. It’s online in several places,” Riley said. “Students are tech savvy; they can go online and type in ‘sexual assault protocol.’”
‘A LACK OF VISION’
But some experts say UMD’s approach to sexual assault education is wrong.
The Minnesota Department of Health’s Rivenburgh said the idea that students won’t listen comes from a “lack of vision.”
Rivenburgh is spending the year researching universities’ attempts to prevent sexual assault. She said she strongly favors mandatory preventive education, particularly during welcome week.
“The highest rate of victimization for college students is during the first few weeks of their freshman year of college, when they’re the most vulnerable in terms of what the expectations are and they’re maybe drinking more than they did in high school,” Rivenburgh said.
Megan McKendry, co-communications coordinator and board member of Students Active for Ending Rape at Columbia University in New York, said mandatory education has been shown to improve people’s attitudes concerning sexual assault. She, too, pointed out students’ increased vulnerability in the first few weeks of their freshman year.
When told that administrators at UMD believe incoming students aren’t likely to listen to information on sexual assault policies, McKendry said: “That sounds like a poor excuse to me for not having implemented preventive programming.”
TAKING ANOTHER LOOK
After being questioned by reporters for this series, UMD administrators said they have begun reconsidering how to inform students about sexual assault.
UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said the administration is taking a look at what is covered in First Year Experience courses and how to ensure students are informed about key topics in a way that will stick with them.
“It’s a matter of finding the right timing, the right messaging and the right ways to reinforce that messaging,” Black said.
JD Holmquist, a former UMD student who said he was drugged, beaten and sexually assaulted at an off-campus location in 2009, said he thinks preventive education should be mandatory.
“I feel like every freshman needs to have that sexual health seminar that UMD has to offer,” he said.
Holmquist was a peer sexual health educator during his time at UMD. He said he felt like UMD gave him great support after he was assaulted. He received counseling at UMD’s Health Services.
“I’m sure there are ... students at UMD who have been sexually assaulted and feel like the university did nothing,” he said. “(But) a part of me feels like if you didn’t look for the help, then you didn’t really see what UMD had to offer in terms of support, because I was completely blown away by the level of support that I felt through the entire process.”
‘A PART OF ME FOREVER’
Stacy, who had her rape exam too late to collect evidence, never reported her sexual assault to law enforcement, she told reporters.
The counselor at UMD’s Health Services office talked to her about reporting the assault, but she didn’t want the police to contact her assailant.
“(Reporting) was never explained very well to me,” Stacy said. “I always felt if I reported it, he would find out and that I would have to go further and press charges or something, which is not something I was comfortable with doing.”
Stacy said the alleged perpetrator gave her a warning after he attacked her.
“He got up out of the bed, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone what happened here tonight’ and then left,” she said. “And then I lay there still kind of in shock for ... probably five minutes, and then went downstairs and told my friend that we needed to go.”
Stacy, who said she was a sophomore when she was assaulted, withdrew from UMD after she finished the semester and one summer class.
“(Staying in Duluth) didn’t even seem like an option,” she said. “I didn’t want to be up there. I was that uncomfortable with everything.”
Stacy said that since moving back home, she has been working and taking classes at a community college. She plans to go back to school in St. Paul this fall or next spring. She said the rape still affects her.
“It’s something that is going to be a part of me forever,” Stacy said. “It’s never going to go away. But it’s something that with time I’ll learn how to cope with differently, and I think will end up making me a better person. And I am more skeptical. ... I think it’s opened my eyes to the reality of the world.”
Find more on this investigation: Sexual assault victims feel pressured to drop charges UMD changing some policies on how it handles sex assaults No sanctions in 14 years No one is immune: A former UMD student’s story of sexual assault
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