Conflicting figures add to uncertainty
By Colin Barry And Laura Mc Gann, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, November 21, 2003
Following a recent flood of sexual assault allegations in the campus press, the Dartmouth community has been flooded with accusations of administrative indifference to sexual assault and unwillingness to discipline those who commit such acts.
At the source of the debate lies the widely-differing figures on reported sexual assaults and formal complaints.
Sexual abuse counselors received reports of 14 incidents of alleged rape and six of attempted rape over the last academic year, according to the website for Dartmouth's Sexual Abuse Awareness Program. Over a similar period, Safety and Security published just five complaints of sexual assault in its Annual Security Report.
However, in the last academic year, the College's Judicial Affairs Office -- the body that oversees the College's disciplinary system -- received only one report of alleged sexual abuse.
Some conflict surrounds the extent to which that disparity results from how alleged victims choose to respond to assault versus how college administrators interact with them.
Undergraduate Judicial Affairs officer Marcia Kelly theorized that the gap between reports and complaints might exist because many victims make a conscious decision not to invoke College discipline.
"There are people who make the choice not to file a complaint in part because we are a small community and they are concerned about retaliation or social ostracism," Kelly said.
Kelly called such concerns "realistic," and noted that sexual assault is "typically underreported almost everywhere."
For their part, activists focused their attention on the apparent dearth of rape cases appearing in Dartmouth's undergraduate judicial system as a sign of systematic flaws.
"It doesn't look like the administration is being that receptive to people saying one, I was sexually assaulted, two, I want to tell people about it and three, something needs to be done," said Victoria Tompkins '04, member of a recently-formed student group to examine sexual assault on campus. "They either slip up in one of those three things."
SAAP coordinator Abby Tassel echoed Kelly's comments, adding that the College discipline process can be difficult for already-traumatized victims of sexual assault.
"People who are assaulted are generally pretty freaked out," Tassel said. "The idea of going into a room and explaining to people what happened to them doesn't seem like a particularly attractive opportunity."
Administrators also noted that rape is, by nature, not a public crime, and evidence of wrongdoing is sometimes difficult to come by.
"We can only act to the extent to which we have the evidence which allows us to act," first-year dean Gail Zimmerman said.
Additionally, some rape victims might choose not to file a report because of their own activities before their assault. Currently, no policy is in place to exempt students who report sexual assaults from punishment for activities they may disclose while filing a report, such as underage drinking.
Dartmouth administrators said, however, that assaulted students generally are not punished for less serious wrongdoings.
"I don't think I've ever given an alcohol violation during a sexual assault case," upper-class dean Sylvia Langford said at a Collis Community Hour event last week.
Zimmerman said that she could not accurately estimate how many assaults actually occur each year at Dartmouth, but suggested that SAAP statistics might include single incidents that were reported anonymously by multiple community members.
"I am sure there are sexual assaults that happen and go unreported -- period," Zimmerman said.
Kelly said the College investigates the preponderance of incidents reported to her.
"Most of the people who reach the point of actually having a conversation with me decide to file a complaint and go forward," Kelly said.
While Tassel emphasized the ongoing discussion of training for College judicial arbiters, she expressed some satisfaction with Dartmouth's system for addressing sexual assault.
"There's always room for improvement. In comparison with the U.S. court system, though, we're doing great as far as I'm concerned," Tassel said.