Susan Russell

Kathryn Russell (left) and her mother Susan received an apology from U.Va. President Teresa-Sullivan on Nov. 4.

The campus policewoman who responded to Kathryn Russell's call that she had been raped in her University of Virginia dorm took her sheets and clothing and told her, "It's a tough lesson to learn, huh?"

It was a dismissive attitude that Russell said doomed the investigation from the start.

"There was no justice for me," said Russell, who with her mother is the force behind a measure under study by the State Crime Commission that seeks to change the way rapes on campus are investigated.

The commission's hearing this Wednesday on the proposal, which could transfer major-crime investigations to local law-enforcement agencies, comes as universities are under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to respond more aggressively to sexual violence on campus.

A Richmond Times-Dispatch review of sexual-assault reports from seven Virginia universities found that no cases involving student-on-student assault resulted in criminal prosecution from 2008 through 2010. In virtually all instances, either the victim decided not to press charges or the commonwealth's attorney declined to take the case for lack of evidence.

Cases handled through the student judiciary process rarely resulted in expulsion — the single sanction that U.Va. imposes for cheating. Virginia Tech was the only university to report dismissing a student for sexual misconduct during those years.

Last spring, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, citing statistics that 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted while in college, told universities they must lower the evidentiary standard for holding a student accountable in campus judiciary procedures. The schools were advised to use the civil standard of a "preponderance of the evidence," rather than "clear and convincing evidence."

But Kathryn Russell and her mother, Susan, are seeking to change how the most serious of those allegations are handled. Susan Russell questions why the outcome of a case that would be handled as felony in a courtroom is determined on campus through an internal, administrative procedure.

Kathryn Russell transferred from U.Va. after her junior year in 2004 because her alleged assailant was found not guilty in such a proceeding. The next year, she said, he was accused of raping another student.

"I was constantly stonewalled," Russell said of her efforts to have her case handled as a criminal investigation. "They don't want to hear about it because it makes the school look bad, basically."

U.Va. officials adamantly deny a conflict exists.

"The last thing we want to do is harbor a rapist. Why would that be in our self-interest?" said Susan Davis, U.Va.'s associate vice president for student affairs and liaison to Office of the General Counsel.

Earlier this month, the Russells met with U.Va.'s new president, Teresa Sullivan, and received an apology, according to Susan Russell. "It was very cathartic," she said.

Sullivan could not be reached for comment. But shortly after taking office last fall, she said she saw a need to clarify policies regarding assaults, adding that she tended to look at the issue "with a mom's eyes and ears."

* * * * *

U.Va. overhauled its sexual-misconduct policy last spring and refined it further after receiving the government's "Dear Colleague" letter. The letter reminded universities that sexual harassment and assault violate Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.

Under the guidelines outlined by the letter, sexual misconduct policies must allow the accuser, as well as the accused, to appeal a decision in a campus judiciary proceeding.

Assault reports must be reviewed by a designated Title IX coordinator on each campus, which potentially could result in increased efforts to press charges against assailants.

Those decisions now are largely left to victims because of the wrenching nature of the process. Commonwealth's attorneys are reluctant to prosecute the cases when a student does come forward because the episodes frequently involve alcohol and rarely are there witnesses.

The cases are always heartbreaking and seldom cut and dried, said Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer for U.Va. "You never end up with a win-win."

Some schools, including VCU and Tech, already were in compliance with the lower evidentiary standard, the change that has drawn the most questions and concerns, especially from male students. The standard means a student can be held accountable if an incident was deemed more likely than not to have happened.

Charles Klink, VCU's assistant vice provost for student affairs, said a student came to him with concerns about the policy recently after reading about the Title IX letter.

But Klink said VCU already used that standard because the university views the lower threshold as a way to convey that attending an institution of higher education is a privilege.

"Philosophically, it is a way to say, 'You're part of this community, we expect more of you,' " he said.

College administrators said they fear unintended consequences as a result of both the proposal before the crime commission and the Title IX compliance letter.

Del. Paula J. Miller, D-Norfolk, said she introduced the legislation — which was referred to the crime commission during the last session of the General Assembly — as the result of Kathryn Russell's case.

"She never got her day in court," said Miller, whose legislative term ends this year. The proposal is an effort to expand options for crime victims, not an assault on the professionalism of campus police, she said.

Russell contends that her case was so poorly handled initially that it could not be pursued by a prosecutor when she sought recourse outside the campus judiciary process. Her alleged assailant, she said, was not interviewed by campus police for 10 days.

As originally worded, the proposal would require schools to report a death or an alleged rape on campus property to the local law-enforcement agency, which would assume responsibility for leading an investigation.

But Susan Russell said she would like to see the wording revised to require joint collaboration between campus and local authorities.

The bill, which has become known as Kathryn's Law, has drawn support from the family of Morgan Harrington, a Tech student who was murdered after she left a concert at U.Va.'s John Paul Jones Arena.

But the original proposal was strongly opposed last session by campus police departments, whose officers argue their training matches and in some cases surpasses that of local law enforcement.

Michael A. Gibson, U.Va.'s chief of police, said his officers attend the same training academy as Charlottesville and Albemarle County officers. They also are better aware of resources on campus to aid students.

"I'd be willing to step out on a limb and suggest here that we probably put much more emphasis on training than some local departments do," he said, because "we police a very unique environment."

Christine Dennis Smith, co-director of Tech's Women's Center, agreed. She said she worries the legislation could deter students from filing a report because they might feel less comfortable speaking with off-campus police.

She also is concerned that the new federal guidelines, especially the role of the Title IX coordinator, might discourage victims from reporting.

"I think it's really hotly debated about how Title IX should be interpreted," she said. "Colleges are struggling with how to be in compliance with Title IX and balancing that with victims' rights."

As it stands now on most campuses, it is left up to the victim to decide whether to file a formal complaint, but that could change as a result of the letter, Dennis Smith said.

The letter was well-intentioned, she said, but she fears it "could have the opposite effect of pushing victims underground."

The decision to press a case is especially difficult for a college student because often the accused and the victim know each other and sometimes have the same circle of friends, said Donna Haygood-Jackson, senior assistant dean of students and director of health education at the College of William and Mary.

"The hardest thing for students is to think that someone they knew could hurt them," she said. When alcohol is a factor, that creates another barrier for coming forward, she said, because it makes victims blame themselves.

"This age group is really good at saying, 'Well, maybe that didn't happen the way I thought it happened,' so they'll take the self-blame," she said.

But those were not the circumstances surrounding her case, Kathryn Russell said. She knew her alleged assailant only vaguely from being in the same class and a club at U.Va., she said.

Russell's case was the focus of a Center for Public Integrity report that maintained that sexual-assault cases are often shrouded in secrecy on campus.

Russell successfully challenged U.Va.'s confidentiality policy after she was told she could not disclose the outcome of her hearing before the Sexual Assault Board, which cleared the student of rape.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2008 ruled the policy to be a violation of Clery Act disclosure rules. U.Va. had contended the policy was necessary under FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects student records.

The second student who allegedly was assaulted by the same suspect could not be reached for comment. But she told the Center for Public Integrity that when she filed her rape allegation, a dean told her: "I'm sorry to see this name come up again."

The suspect was found guilty after the first hearing, the center said. But he appealed and was cleared after a second hearing.

Kathryn Russell said she was discouraged from the start when she tried to file her complaint. The dean "sent me home and told me to think about it," she said.

While she said she understands why victims are reluctant to file charges, she thinks they become accessories to the next assault if they don't.

"I went to hell and back," she said. "I was dead, and I still pursued what I thought was the right thing to do."



(804) 649-6119   kkapsidelis@timesdispatch.com

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