By Dallas Satterfield
Almost 12 percent of American college students, male and female, will experience rape or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. That number suggests that effective campus policing is critical, but two years of investigating how my own university handles rape cases has revealed big flaws in its systems, which should bring justice but often bring heartbreak to victims instead.
In the spring of 2016, I was a sophomore at one of Georgia’s largest public universities, Kennesaw State, and just starting out as a crime reporter at The Sentinel, KSU’s student newspaper.
I had a weekly crime column — mostly a satirical take on weed arrests and drunken students falling on sidewalks — but slowly, I got it in my head there needed to be more serious reporting. Comedy was fine, but I believed students needed to be better informed about the crime on their campus.
I started by requesting an incident report on a recent rape case that was quickly closed by KSU Public Safety and University Police. That’s when the trouble — and a two-year project — began. Unlike every other time I had requested records from Public Safety, the rape-case records obtained were heavily redacted with a black marker, looking like something from a spy film.
This aroused my suspicions.
So, I began looking through Georgia’s 2005 Open Records Act for answers. The law, as I read it, suggested the information had been redacted illegally. So, I went to Ed Bonza, who was then the head of Student Media, later the head of KSU’s Student Activities department, and now retired as of March 29, 2018. I needed guidance, and Bonza agreed the redaction issue should be addressed. Immediately, we tried to set up meetings with everyone who might have the power to redact the information.
First, we went to Legal Affairs. There, we learned that when the department redacted documents before public release, it used a style that did not match the redactions I saw on the rape-case records. After a long discussion on ethics, Georgia’s Open Records Act, and how Legal Affairs typically handles records requests, it was clear that department had not done the redactions.
I had no other option but to move on and question the other departments with authorization to redact records.
A month later, Bonza and I scheduled a meeting with KSU Police Chief Roger Stearns, who abruptly resigned months later in August 2016 after multiple complaints from officers in his department about his abrasive leadership style. Can you guess what happened?
Stearns didn’t even show up. Instead, I had a frustrating meeting with Heather Tucker, custodian of records for Public Safety and University Police. She claimed the department had no knowledge that the records I received had been redacted — although the redactions were plainly visible when I picked up the records from her department a few months earlier. It became evident KSU kept tight control on information regarding rape allegations on its two campuses.
After that meeting, I began to distrust Public Safety’s crime statistics and began keeping track of the rape cases that were logged by university police on both KSU’s Kennesaw and Marietta campuses.
This is what I found: There have been 37 incidents of rape reported on both campuses from 2014 through the end of 2017 — 33 reported on the Kennesaw campus, four on the Marietta campus. As of this writing, only four of the 37 cases have been closed by arrest.
Today at KSU, there are 15 rape cases still marked as under investigation across both campuses. Two cases remain open but are not under ongoing investigation. Two other cases were deferred to Title IX investigations, which is where, it seems, these cases go to die.
Title IX is part of a federal law passed in 1972 that says educational institutions cannot discriminate against students because of their gender. It is also a way to combat sexual harassment defined by the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX Resource Guide as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, such as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment.”
VIctims of sexual harassment or assault can file a complaint in order to get the accused expelled from the institution. In the case of universities, there are designated Title IX officials and investigators. Once a Title IX complaint is registered, it warrants an investigation. A hearing is then held and a decision made.
Here’s the rub: Victims who have used Title IX to seek justice claim the investigators have little experience in cases as serious as rape, and worst of all, victims themselves must present evidence to prove their case — with no legal representation allowed.
In one Title IX case at KSU, the victim brought forth eight witnesses to testify the accused had a pattern of abuse. One of the witnesses was the accused’s ex-wife, who had reported her own mistreatment to police. The accused brought just four witnesses to testify to his character, and was found innocent and continued going to classes at KSU alongside the victim. That outcome appears to contradict the Department of Education’s Title IX resource guide, which states, “The more severe the conduct, the less need there is to show a repetitive series of incidents to prove a hostile environment, particularly if the conduct is physical. Indeed, a single or isolated incident of sexual violence may create a hostile environment.”
But what about criminal cases, you say? How are they handled? The four arrests in 2017 came only when there was eyewitness testimony or a record of text messages in which the rapists admitted to their crimes.
What about the remaining 33 cases, the ones appreciably more challenging to solve? I haven’t the slightest idea, because of the tight hold the university keeps on all information regarding rape cases.
By now, you may be wondering if other universities handle rape cases similarly. It appears they do. At the University of Georgia in Athens, incidents appear to be handled the same way. I talked to Grace Walker, the news editor at UGA’s independent student newspaper, The Red & Black, and what I heard was much the same. In 2016, there were 15 rapes reported on UGA’s crime log, but no arrests had been made when Walker’s reporting on the issue appeared in October 2017.
After two torturous years, I have, without a doubt, seen how my university fails to protect its students and bring justice to victims of sexual assault. The school persistently controls the flow of information to the public and students. Campus police answers to an administration that wants rape cases kept quiet for fear of dissuading parents from sending their children to the university. Enforcement of violations under Title IX is also thoroughly flawed.
To adequately address the problem, more parents and students must call for greater transparency in how colleges handle campus crime. We have to ask more questions and call for stronger Title IX enforcement, with investigators who genuinely know what the hell they're doing. To remove any possibility of a university’s public-image concerns dictating law-enforcement practices, control of campus police departments should be taken away and given to the local police in the jurisdiction where the university resides. And maybe we should, in earnest, start teaching children about healthy relationships and sex instead of sweeping it under the rug, as the South tends to do when it comes to the carnal.
In the era of #MeToo and “Time’s Up,” there has never been a better time for a serious national conversation and critique of how our nation’s universities police their campuses and handle cases of sexual violence. I’m grateful for my experience at KSU. But as I finally write this long overdue column, I am also bitter about all the student victims who have not found justice. I hope you are, too.
Dallas Satterfield has worked as a volunteer editorial assistant at The Bitter Southerner since January.