The Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law held its Fall Symposium on “Sexual Assault: Legal Responses & Institutional Realities” on October 10, 2017. The panel on Institutional Responses to Sexual Assault included guest speakers Meghan Root, a Sexual Assault and Response Coordinator with the U.S. Air Force, and Regina Curran, a Title IX Program Officer at American University. The panel was moderated by Brenda Smith, a Professor of Law at Washington College of Law.

As the Sexual Assault and Response Coordinator for the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing for the Air Force at Fort Meade, Maryland, Meghan Root’s main job is to prevent sexual assault, and when it does occur, to have an appropriate response mechanism in place. The office specifically deals with victims of sexual violence, but does not provide support to victims that are under 18 years old or those involved in domestic or interpersonal violence. As the Title IX Program Officer at American University, Regina Curran deals mostly with situations where both the complainant and respondent are students. In her role, Ms. Curran investigates reports, determines whether someone is responsible, and then makes a decision in regards to the respondent’s status at the university; she has no role in the criminal justice system. Professor Brenda Smith also has experience working with sexual abuse in institutional settings, specifically prison. She ran an educational program for female prisoners in Warden, Virginia, and over the course of her work, she realized that women had access to fewer resources than the men and also had serious sanitation issues.

In cases of sexual assault, one of the biggest obstacles to reporting is whether the survivor thinks he or she will be believed. When someone does report, another obstacle that arises is the victim’s credibility. Ms. Root, Ms. Curran, and Professor Smith all acknowledged that this was an issue, and the institutions they work for do have some different ways of handling reports. Meghan described her office as being very “pro-victim” in the sense that anyone who walks into the office is automatically believed and eligible for support. However, even with this support, the strong command structure in the military has posed some challenges with reporting. In an environment where men and women are told from day one not to break rank, victims can struggle with whether to report and to whom to make the report. Compounding that is the fact that there is a real possibility of an uneven power dynamic between the victim and the perpetrator. If the victim does choose to file, he or she has the option to file either a restricted or non-restricted report depending on the level of involvement and follow up he or she wants.

In the university setting, Regina explained that the Title IX Office can handle allegations of sexual assault through a formal or informal reporting process. She explained that some of the obstacles to reporting on college campuses have to do with the relationship between the parties involved, fear of social consequences, fear of “ruining someone’s life,” and the victim’s fear that she or he won’t be believed. She also mentioned that when looking into these allegations, validity of consent, alcohol consumption, and social media were important factors to consider. Because college campuses can feel like a very small social bubble, victims often struggle with coming forward because they do not want to alienate themselves. If a student does choose to report, it can be done through an informal or formal report.

Finally, Professor Smith explained that in a prison setting the issue of credibility is an even more significant obstacle to reporting sexual assault. When the victim is a person in custody and the perpetrator is a member of the staff at the prison, there is a huge discrepancy in power; there is no consent when it comes to sexual relations between an inmate and a guard. Most states now recognize this and have passed legislation in an attempt to protect inmates from unequal sexual relationships with guards. Not only are incarcerated people generally viewed with more skepticism than non-incarcerated people, but if an inmate chooses to report, she could be reporting to the very person who committed the assault or one of his friends. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to lack of reporting, or if a report was filed, a lack of follow up, as the reports are often handled internally.

If a victim does file a report, what does that look like in the military and at universities? In the military, the victim can choose to file a restricted or non-restricted report. If an investigation is done and meets the preponderance of evidence threshold, meaning that at least 50% of the evidence points to an assault having happened, it will most likely lead to a court martial. A sexual assault case that is handled in a court martial is different than one handled in a civilian court – there is a panel of five people and to find the accused guilty, only 2/3 of the panel must agree. There are then many different ways for dealing with the person found guilty, but it is all done within the confines of the military. Meanwhile, for sexual assault cases handled by universities, the student can go through an informal process by which he or she is the only person involved and is offered campus resources such as counseling, academic accommodations, and access to an advocate. There is also a formal process by which the victim is offered the same services but the accused perpetrator is also notified so that he or she knows what he or she is being accused of and can be heard on the topic. This is to ensure “fundamental fairness.” If a student is found guilty of violating the school’s honor code by committing a sexual assault, he or she will face university-based disciplinary actions.

Both the military and universities are subject to several laws and regulations aimed at preventing sexual assaults and supporting survivors. In the military, the Department of Defense and Congress oversee the prevention and response plans and have provided an outline on what is required, which all branches must adhere to. While the command structure can sometimes be an obstacle, it also can sometimes make it easier to make institutional changes when necessary. For example, in the 2014 survey across the Department of Defense assessing levels of sexual violence, it was reported that fear of retaliation had increased. In response to this, Congress got involved and required that tracking be implemented so that adequate responses to address this could be adopted. In comparison, at universities laws like Title IX, the Clery Act, FERPA, and the Violence Against Women Act govern how universities deal with sexual violence.

While the military and universities have made some strides in the last few years in the effort to prevent sexual assault and support survivors, the panel seemed to agree that there is definitely more that can and needs to be done. While enacting additional legislation to prevent sexual violence would be helpful, there also needs to be a way to more strongly enforce the laws we already have. In institutional settings, sexual assaults are typically handled internally, meaning that the perpetrator may not be held responsible in a way that perpetrators of sexual assault outside of institutions are.

All perpetrators of sexual violence should be subject to the same laws and punishments; it should not vary based on whether the crime was committed within the confines of an institution. Combating rape culture is also a key step towards eradicating sexual violence, and that is something that needs to be done not only through legislation, but through educational and societal measures as well. Legislation alone is rarely sufficient to effect meaningful change. As a society, we must change our views on sexual assault and figure out the best way to prevent these acts of violence from occurring. The measures taken to prevent sexual violence might vary from institution to institution, but the message must be the same – that sexual violence is not acceptable.

According to Regina, the best prevention strategies are providing comprehensive sexual education to students starting in elementary school, specifically dealing with the concept of consent, discussing protective behaviors to keep yourself safe, alcohol and drug awareness, and teaching about bystander intervention. Meghan shared some similar opinions but also added that bringing together all the databases on different types of sexual violence would enable easier tracking and prevention. Brenda agreed that sexual education and consent were key and added that past-victimization services would be another way to help prevent assaults, specifically on people in custody, because those with a history of victimization are more likely to be victimized again while in custody.