University of Chicago among colleges investigated for mishandling campus sexual assault cases

April 28, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Victims call campus rape the "invisible crime" because it is under-reported and offenders are rarely prosecuted or even disciplined by their school. The problem so pervasive the White House Monday night announced a nationwide plan to reduce the epidemic of college sexual assaults.

It is too late for one University of Chicago student who says what happened to her should never happen again.

"This was an abusive situation," said Olivia Ortiz, who says she was assaulted by her then-boyfriend.

The data is: One in five women is raped while in college, most by fellow students.

"It was a lot of coercive, coerciveness. He took advantage of me sexually, too, and he had kind of created a world for me where this was something that was ok," Ortiz said.

"I had gone to the dean of students and she had me go through a process called 'informal mediation.'"

Even though the U. of C. handbook explicitly states mediation will "not be used to resolve complaints of sexual assault."

Incredibly, she said the student she had accused was in the mediation meeting with her and the dean.

"I definitely felt like I was being portrayed as a hysterical woman in the situation," said Ortiz.

Rattled by the way her case was handled, Ortiz says she came to the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

"Those women and men who experience a sexual assault don't trust that if they come forward, they don't trust that they will be believed," said Kaethe Morris Hoffer, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. "It is an epidemic."

But you wouldn't know that by the numbers. Federal law requires universities to report sexual assaults as part of a yearly campus crime report. But researchers say the assaults are grossly under-reported.

"Colleges and universities are really misrepresenting the climate on their campus when you look at the official numbers," said Prof. Angela Hattery, George Mason University.

The I-Team gathered sexual assault statistics from area universities for the past three years, even large state schools claiming few rapes had occurred. In some cases one per year, and no school reported more than 10 sexual assaults per year. The private University of Chicago reported no more than five forcible sexual assaults in each of the last three years. U. of C. in Hyde Park has about 14,000 students.

Experts say part of the problem is some college administrators encourage rape victims to just let the university handle their cases.

"Universities are very, very concerned that if they take disciplinary action they will harm the reputation of the young man," Hattery said.

"I was very disappointed in the counseling services that I had received," Ortiz said. "She at one point, even told me that, 'So, you did sleep in a bed with the guy and you know what happens when you do that.' It felt like she was trying to blame me for what had happened."

Ortiz's attorney advised her to file a Title IX complaint. That federal law bars gender discrimination in education. Mishandling sexual assault cases can lead to the loss of federal funding.

As a result of Ortiz's complaint, in January the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights opened a formal investigation at the University of Chicago. U. of C. officials declined I-Team interview requests, but in a statement touted their efforts to comply with the investigation and the university's commitment to address sexual misconduct over the years, such as adding a sexual assault dean on call.

Similar investigations are underway Monday night at more than 40 universities across the country.

"I just hope they get this as a wake-up call, that this is not acceptable," said Ortiz.

The Justice Department data estimates only one in 20 college women report it when they are sexually assaulted.

Tuesday afternoon Vice President Joe Biden will formally unveil the administration's college assault action plan, including pushing universities to respond better to victims and to become more transparent in reporting campus sex crimes.

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