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One in four women and one in 18 men say they were sexually assaulted during their time as undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Reports of assault on campus have nearly tripled since 2011—but that increase, while alarming, may offer helpful information in addressing the problem, according to those working to improve resources, transparency and support for survivors.
Lines of support: If you have been a victim of sexual assault, call the Dane County Rape Crisis Center’s 24/7 hotline, which is free and confidential, at: 608-251-7273. University Health Services additionally provides support to student victims and survivors at no cost. To contact UHS, call 608-265-5600 or visit the Survivor Services' website.
It was one of those classic October Saturday nights that makes the University of Wisconsin–Madison so enchanting — students basking in the lake breeze blowing off humidity and midterm steam. After a night of drinking and party-hopping with friends in her second month of school, a freshman was walking home when a male student she’d never met before offered to escort her. Hours later, residence hall cameras captured her “running and distraught” from what the male student insisted was a consensual sexual encounter. UW Police Department officers began their process of recorded interviews, evidence collection and meticulous documentation that would become a 54-page police report, and end in no charges filed.
This was just one of many alleged sexual assault cases on campus between 2016 and 2017 to which UWPD responded, detailed in hundreds of pages of documents reviewed by Madison Magazine. The reports (with names and identifying information redacted to protect the victims) were obtained through an open records request by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in this joint project between the magazine and the center. Among those reports were incidents like these: a 19-year-old woman covered in bruises who says a consensual experience with a fellow student turned into rape; an 18-year-old female asleep in her residence hall bunk wakes to a stranger fondling her beneath her pajama shorts; an unconscious 18-year-old who remembers nothing of her assault on a dining hall bench until police show her the video recorded by the perpetrator on his phone.
“It’s a very real problem,” says Tonya Schmidt, an assistant dean and the director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards at UW–Madison — not just on her campus of 29,930 undergraduates, but at schools nationwide. Schmidt, along with Title IX coordinator Lauren Hasselbacher and colleagues, investigate and adjudicate alleged sexual assaults involving UW–Madison students — at least the ones they know about. As required by the federal Clery Act and Title IX law and guided by Wisconsin state statute, the university tracks reports to UWPD, campus security authorities and confidential resources. In 2017, says Schmidt, UW–Madison was made aware of 318 sexual assaults — nearly triple the number three years ago — but 173 were reported to confidential resources, revealing no identifying information to investigate, and not all assaults occurred during the years victims attended UW–Madison.
In the years leading up to 2013, that number hovered around 122 incidents annually. In 2014, prompted in part by a national student movement that inspired then-President Barack Obama’s administration’s “It’s On Us” campaign to bring awareness to campus sexual assault, that number jumped to 172. In 2015, to 217. Still, the university suspected the scope of the problem was larger than these increases revealed; according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 80 percent of female college students never report their sexual assaults to police.
In 2015, UW–Madison was one of 27 institutions to participate in the Association of American Universities, or AAU, Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault Climate Survey. Nearly 9,000 UW–Madison students completed the survey, revealing that more than one in four women and one in 18 men were sexually assaulted as undergraduate students. Of those reported assaults, 12.6 percent were females experiencing “nonconsensual penetration by force or incapacitation” — and most assaults were reported to have happened during the victims’ freshman or sophomore years, most in residence halls, and most were perpetrated by assailants who were known to the victims. Of these students who experienced penetration by force, only 26.1 percent reported the incidents.
Schmidt says the AAU statistics are the real numbers.
Since the late 1990s, UW–Madison’s University Health Services has increased its staff dedicated to violence prevention, including sexual assault, from one staff member to seven, plus 15 hourly student workers. An independent, full-time employee from the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, or RCC, is also stationed inside UHS. RCC facilitates a free and confidential 24/7 hotline and in-person advocacy within 30 minutes of a call. Professionals are available by email, phone or drop-in hours and, if students want to explore reporting, advocates will accompany them to medical, law enforcement and university meetings.
The university has revamped its sexual health programming for all incoming students, combined it with alcohol education and made it in-person and mandatory. This comes at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares new policies (in line with President Donald Trump’s so-called rollbacks to Obama-era sexual assault guidelines) that would give more rights to students accused of sexual assault and reduce liability for higher education institutions, as The New York Times reported in late August. And even though the Trump administration repealed a 60-day deadline for colleges to complete investigations as part of those rollbacks because it feared it pressured colleges to expel innocent students, the university still works to complete investigations within that timeline. (Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued a statement on Sept. 7, 2017 that UW–Madison will ignore the rollbacks.) Schmidt and Hasselbacher say the investigative process is fair and supportive to both parties, and includes a variety of housing and academic accommodations for students awaiting outcomes.
The hope is to create an atmosphere of transparency and support for victims — whether they choose to report or not — and dispel the notion that institutions would rather conceal sexual crimes on campus than acknowledge they occur.
“We paid a lot of money to participate in that [survey],” says Schmidt, “and it was because we wanted to know what the real deal was for us here at UW–Madison.”
The “real deal” can be extraordinarily challenging to quantify. Sexual violence crimes are notoriously underreported for many reasons, including victims’ fear of not being believed; retaliation or recurrence; being ostracized from friends, groups or shared living spaces; what friends and family will think. Survivors also might have a desire to move on and focus on academics, and are sometimes unwilling to “ruin the life” of the accused, whom they often know.
The more marginalized the victims, the less likely they are to report. In the AAU survey, nearly half of female American Indian/Alaska Native undergraduate students said they were sexually assaulted at UW–Madison. One deterrent to reporting may be that the perpetrator and the victim share the same social circle — and that may be the only community the sexual assault survivor has on campus. Another is a lack of confidence in the system.
“For some students, there is a sense of institutional distrust, not believing that the university or law enforcement will actually hold their perpetrator accountable in a way that feels worth the emotional toll it takes to go through one of these processes,” says Jamie Temple, coordinator of the Survivor Services team at UW–Madison’s University Health Services. “Students of color, students with disabilities, Native women and LGBTQ students face higher rates of perpetration, and often feel less safe reaching out to formalized systems for support.”
It doesn’t help that the results don’t seem to align with the university’s efforts. In 2017, UW–Madison investigated only 13 cases of alleged sexual assault. The university found six perpetrators responsible, suspended four and expelled one. Similarly, over the past seven years, UW–Madison has issued nine expulsions for sexual assault — and three of those were directed at the same student, convicted rapist Alec Cook. In the university’s defense, it cannot conduct investigations when nearly 90 percent of the sexual assault allegations are either reported to confidential sources or involve perpetrators unaffiliated with UW–Madison. But that can’t be an excuse, says UW–Madison senior Kennedie King, the chair of the student organization Promoting Awareness and Victim Empowerment, better known as PAVE, which works to prevent sexual assault, intimate partner violence and stalking on campus.
“Communities of color on this campus feel so alienated and so isolated from the campus community as a whole, just because you don’t have [many people of color] in academic staff, you don’t see [many people of color] walking down the street,” says King, who is PAVE’s first black and queer-identifying chair. King says instead of lamenting the lack of identifying information, the university and organizations like PAVE must work to make all students comfortable disclosing details in the first place. “I think a lot of people decide not to continue the reporting process because of the distrust of the institution, whether that’s because of the identities that they hold or just not expecting anything to happen,” King says.
And then there’s the alcohol problem. When the AAU survey measured instances of nonconsensual penetration by force at UW–Madison, one or both parties were drinking in nearly 75 percent of the cases.
“UW has a heavy drinking culture. We can’t separate that from this issue,” says Jaime Sathasivam, RCC’s director of client programming. “That’s not to say that drinking is the cause of sexual assault — the perpetrator is the cause of sexual assault — but when we look at the numbers, we know that alcohol is the No. 1 date-rape drug. And we know that it does create vulnerabilities, and perpetrators use it to create vulnerabilities.”
According to UWPD, sexual assault is any sexual contact made without consent, from fondling to penetration. Consent is not the absence of a no, but the presence of a freely given yes, and it cannot legally be obtained if an individual is incapacitated due to alcohol or other drugs, is unconscious, asleep or has limited mental capacity.
“One key misconception about campus sexual assault is that it’s a normal repercussion for drinking, or that students are using regrettable hookups and calling them sexual assault to get attention,” says UHS’ Temple. “These are both absurd and completely harmful messages that their peers and adults reinforce to believe that if they can find a reason to blame the victim, they are ‘safe.’ A normal consequence for a night of drinking should be that you have a headache or you feel nauseous. Not that someone else felt they had a right to your body without your ability to consent.”
One trademark characteristic of the UW–Madison campus is its seamless integration into downtown Madison. The bar-jammed 600 block of University Avenue — not technically campus, but nearly indistinguishable from it — was recognized as the “most puked-upon street” in the U.S. by the Princeton Review for the seventh year in a row, as reported by the Daily Cardinal in 2017. Campus borders feel nonexistent between residence halls and the watering holes that line State Street, where Whiskey Jacks Saloon’s drink menu, posted on the wall as large as the flat-screen TVs, sells a “two-shot minimum” on drinks called Crazy Bitch, Piece of Ass, Suck my Dickel, Pink Taco, Fuzzy Beaver and Red Headed Slut.
“Oh, that’s my favorite,” says 2018 graduate Megan Murphy, sarcastically. “I’m like, ‘Hi, I have red hair, what are you talking about?’ Everything at UW is intertwined with drinking culture in some way, whether you drink or not. And I think that one of those things that comes with it is rape culture.”
Before she graduated in May, Murphy served as chair of the Student Title IX Advisory committee, worked as a research assistant on a project looking at sexual harassment in STEM fields, interned at the Dane County Courthouse and volunteered at RCC. Murphy vividly remembers her first day of RCC training, when the instructor asked the class to stand if they believed rape could end one day. Murphy stayed seated. “Now if I was asked the same question, I would jump in the air,” she says. “There’s a ton of work to be done, but it’s doable. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but it will happen. There will be enough people doing enough, saying enough, voicing enough, that it will happen.”
What’s changed the most in four years is her belief that students can fix their own culture — something she wishes she’d known as a freshman.
“Groupthink is a big thing, especially when you come to college. You’re super uncomfortable, you don’t know anyone, you just want to make friends. A lot of people are drinking for the first time, away from their families for the first time, and you don’t know how to stick up for your friends, and you don’t know what to look for,” she says. “I’ve learned bystander intervention is critical.”
At freshman orientation, students are presented with new education that alerts them to warning signs of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault, and how to look out for each other.
“The research about campus sexual assault is that there are very few perpetrators of rape on college campuses,” says UHS’ violence prevention manager Samantha Johnson. “The best science we have postulates that somewhere between 4 to 6 percent of men commit, or attempt to commit, rape during their time in college. The thing is they’re repeating those crimes an average of six times, and their peers aren’t recognizing the behavior is problematic, or no one is intervening, or [the perpetrators’] actions or behaviors or attitudes are somehow camouflaged, disguised or condoned by the environments that they’re thriving within.”
Johnson’s team coordinates UW–Madison’s primary prevention strategy, including the required online and in-person programs for incoming and transfer students called U Got This and Get WIse, covering sexual violence, alcohol education and Green Dot Bystander training. In addition to teaching students evidence-based strategies for detecting and thwarting sexual violence, the programming measures students’ reactions to statements surrounding sexual assault myths.
“The problem is not that students don’t understand consent, it’s that they think other peers are confused about consent,” says Johnson. “When they see the signs that they know that consent isn’t happening, they think what they’re feeling in their gut must be wrong because nobody else is saying anything. They don’t realize that everybody else in the room is thinking the same thing, and if just one person were to say something, they might break that bystander silence.”
Bystander intervention is also at the core of new student-led initiatives, including We’re Better Than That — Men Against Campus Sexual Assault.
“When we go out, we’re bystanders. And we’re just as responsible, if we see something, as the perpetrator. There are countless times just walking in Madison where you see a situation that just doesn’t look right,” said Jake DeCoste, a now-UW–Madison senior and We’re Better Than That member, at a panel discussion during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. The 3-year-old student organization facilitates committees focused on incoming students, athletes and the Greek community. (In the AAU survey, sexual assaults occurred disproportionately in fraternities.)
“You see these guys growing in their knowledge and education and their voices, and how they’re starting to create this new standard for proper discourse within their fraternities, and how it’s becoming something that’s not hidden in the dark,” said DeCoste. “People are really holding their members accountable. It is a process, but it’s starting to take a turn in the right direction.”
UW–Madison senior Sean Hamner is a member of a fraternity he does not wish to name, out of respect for his brothers. He also says they’ve come a long way from the days when they made fun of him after he experienced two sexual assaults his freshman year — incidents he couldn’t speak of at the time, rarely talks about to this day and never reported.
“Besides, it wasn’t a brother who did it to me, it was a woman. I was drinking a lot, just a typical college party, and all of a sudden, next thing I know I’m puking and crying, completely naked,” he says. It took a few years and a lot of education, but eventually his fraternity brothers stood by him and supported him. “We’ve done a lot to make some progressive change, which I’m really grateful for,” Hamner says.
According to a 2017 academic paper by Lara Stemple analyzing data from four large-scale federal agency surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, female sexual perpetration is not as uncommon as people believe, and college students are considered a high-risk population. However, in the AAU survey, more than 98 percent of perpetrators against both male and female victims were identified as male — and Hamner is the first one to point out that he is in the minority.
“ ‘I’m not a survivor; save that for the real survivors,’ is usually what I’m thinking,” Hamner says. And yet afterward, his grades tanked and he developed severe anxiety and depression. He was no longer the outgoing overachiever he’d been, though he’s doing much better now, he says. “I really felt like something was just torn away from me when that happened,” he says. “I felt like I had no confidence anymore.”
Hamner, whose mother is Mexican American, is sometimes mistaken for a caucasian and often hears racial slurs from students who don’t realize they’re insulting him. Especially on Langdon Street, he says, where he’s heard about students of color not getting let into parties, and the woman of color he’s currently dating won’t walk to his frat house at night. He was horrified when he heard that another frat, Theta Chi, was suspended after authorities discovered a high school girl with Rohypnol (a depressant often called the “date-rape drug” when it is placed unknowingly in the drinks of victims) in her system. Hamner also says one of his closest female friends was sexually assaulted her freshman year in her residence hall room. It’s all part of the same toxic culture, he says, and it silences everyone.
“White supremacy and rape culture are almost synonymous,” Hamner says. “Toxic masculinity — you can see it everywhere on this campus; just go to any bar, any tailgate, you’re gonna see men who are flexing, trying to pick up women, drinking — it’s really pervasive,” says Hamner, who now works for UHS Victim Services as a peer violence prevention educator and helps teach Social Work 672: Greek Men for Violence Prevention. “We’re putting all this pressure on men to act a certain way, when in reality,” he says, “most men don’t want to act that way at all.”
At least in university investigations, victims are given due process equal with their alleged assailants — not so in the criminal justice system, according to victims’ rights attorney Laura Dunn, who says “the norm is injustice.” When Dunn accused her rowing crewmate of sexual assault at UW–Madison in 2004 (the subject of an investigative series by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity), she says it took the university nine months to dismiss her case, and her experience with the criminal justice system was worse. She went on to earn her law degree from a different university, worked with the Obama administration to help create the improved Title IX guidelines and founded the national nonprofit SurvJustice — which is suing the President Donald Trump administration for rolling back those guidelines. She was in Madison in 2016 with four UW System students to meet with the office of state attorney general Brad Schimel about ongoing issues with the university’s handling of sexual assault. (UW–Madison is currently under four federal Title IX investigations.) But she left SurvJustice this year to focus on her next mission: passing the Equal Rights Amendment to constitutionally guarantee prohibition against sex discrimination, giving victims of gender violence the same rights as the accused.
“Until that happens, victims aren’t really part of the criminal system,” she says. “In a criminal case, they’re not parties, they are witnesses, they are evidence. They don’t have rights. It’s not for them, it’s not about them, it’s actually about the state.”
This is arguably the largest barrier to reporting sexual assault to law enforcement: the fear that nothing will come of it. Even in the most seemingly egregious cases, convictions and jail time are rare.
Of the cases outlined in the police reports mentioned in the beginning of this story, most were either filed as “open inactive” or declined by the Dane County district attorney’s office, including the case of the freshman woman reportedly assaulted while walking home that fateful October night. Another case — in which a UW–Madison student was arrested for sexual assault and ultimately tried on charges of felony false imprisonment, misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct — ended in jury acquittal. When suspended UW–Madison student Nathan Friar was convicted of second-degree sexual assault and use of force in April 2017, he got probation. And as reported by the Daily Cardinal’s Peter Coutu in September 2017, between 2011 and 2017, five UW–Madison students were convicted in sexual assault cases with maximum sentences that could have totaled six decades behind bars — but they cumulatively served less than a year in jail.
In the university’s most recent high-profile sexual assault case, Wisconsin Badgers football player Quintez Cephus was charged on Aug. 20 with felony second-degree sexual assault of an intoxicated victim and felony third-degree sexual assault. Cephus, who has been suspended from the team until further notice, released a statement saying he was wrongfully accused and that the encounters, which happened on the same night, were consensual. Cephus’ roommate and Badgers teammate Danny Davis was also suspended for two games for his involvement in the alleged sexual assault (he allegedly laughed and took pictures). In mid-September the Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced Davis would not face criminal charges.
In June 2018, expelled UW–Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty to five felony charges of sexual assault, strangulation and stalking. While dozens of women came forward with allegations against Cook, the case involved 11 women, and he was convicted in connection with assault on five of the women. Eighteen other charges were dropped as part of the deal. He was sentenced to three years in jail, resulting in resounding dissent from outraged community members, lawmakers and even the system itself: “Justice was not best served here,” wrote UWPD Captain Kristen Roman in an open statement days later.
“As a woman, I am angered, disheartened, and dismayed that one in five of us is sexually assaulted during our college careers, and saddened by the reality that, for a variety of reasons, we will report less than 10 percent of these sexual assaults to school or police officials,” she wrote. “And as Chief of Police, I find it entirely unacceptable that only 6 percent of assaults reported to police will end with the assailant spending a single day in prison.”
Everyone — from staff at RCC and UHS, to Dunn, Schmidt and Hasselbacher — stresses that reporting the crime is not necessarily the best option for every victim. Even well-intentioned remarks on the bravery of those who come forward — this idea that reporting could prevent future crimes — puts an additional burden on victims.
Ninety percent of campus sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders, says Dunn, “so you have power as a survivor” to aim toward accountability and create a path for it. “But at the same time, you owe no one anything,” says Dunn, adding that many assume she fought back from the start — but she didn’t. It took her a long time to process, and that continues nearly 15 years after her assault. “You don’t have to throw your body on the pile.”
That’s another way to look at that frustrating gap between tracked incidents of sexual assault and the lack of identifying information, according to Schmidt.
“There’s almost 200 students who accessed our confidential resources on campus, meaning they went to see someone to help them figure out what kind of accommodations they could get so they could stay in school and get through this,” says Schmidt. “Not every survivor wants to go through a formal process. They want to make it through their semester and heal from what happened.”
Hasselbacher adds: “I think we’ll be satisfied when we’re hearing from students that ‘I got what I needed. I felt supported by my university in the decisions that I did make, and I felt like I had a lot of options in making those decisions.’ ”
For RCC Executive Director Erin Thornley Parisi, the decades-old formal relationship between her organization and UW–Madison is a strong signal that the university’s efforts are sincere. She says it is important to note that the Cook case is “not as isolated as it appears, and that the No. 1 thing parents can do is to repeatedly talk to their kids — male and female — about these issues long before they arrive on campus.” Thornley Parisi says UW–Madison has room for improvement when it comes to educating parents about sexual assault.
“I’m more interested in the colleges that say, ‘Yes, people get raped here, and this is what we’re doing’ than I am for the colleges saying, ‘We don’t have sexual assault here,’ ” says Thornley Parisi. Does she count UW–Madison as one of those colleges that acknowledges the problem and tries to address it?
“Yes,” she says. “I do.”
That’s the main message she and Sathasivam hope to get across to every victim: You can report — and advocates will walk with you every step of the way — but you don’t have to. You can get treated by professionals (like those at UnityPoint Health – Meriter’s Forensic Nurse Examiner program) and collect evidence to decide on later, and no one — not the police, your parents, your insurance, your university or your assailant — needs to know. Confidential counselors and advocates at both RCC and UHS Survivor Services will help victims explore options at their own pace. Recovery from sexual assault needn’t be contingent on courtroom outcomes or dictated in university hearings — but the sooner a victim accesses resources, the better.
“It’s daunting, and overwhelming, but we wouldn’t do this work if we didn’t believe that people could heal, and that most people will heal,” says Sathasivam. “Healing isn’t linear. There may be back-steps. But we do know that victims overwhelmingly do heal.” She adds that if people disclose a sexual assault to you, believe them. “Thank them for sharing their story,” Sathasivam says. “Ask what they need next, because empowerment is that critical piece to giving someone back control over their life and their destiny.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.
In 2015, a survey by the Association of American Universities came up with this disturbing statistic: More than one in four undergraduate female students and one in 18 male undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin–Madison said they had experienced non-consensual penetration or sexual touching as students.
But the AAU survey found that even students who suffered the most serious type of sexual assault — penetration by force — were very unlikely to report it. Just 26.1 percent of those students said in the survey that they had reported the incident. The anonymous survey, administered at 26 other campuses across the country, was taken by 22 percent of the UW–Madison student body, or about 9,000 students.
The findings mean thousands of UW–Madison students had experienced sexual assault. But official numbers reflect a fraction of that.
According to the 2017 UW–Madison Police Department’s Annual Security Report, the most recent available, in 2016 there were 37 reported incidents of sexual assault that allegedly occurred on or near UW-Madison property ranging from fondling to rape.
As required by the federal Clery Act, those numbers include crimes that occurred on campus, in certain off-campus buildings or property owned or controlled by the UW–Madison, and on public property within, or immediately adjacent to and accessible from, the campus. Of the 30 incidents of fondling, seven were committed by a single suspect in the context of a dating relationship and 15 were committed by another suspect who was arrested.
The most comprehensive compilation of reported sexual assaults involving UW–Madison students is the annual sexual assault summary required by the Legislature. That report by the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards includes all reports of sexual assault against a student disclosed to UW–Madison officials. Most of those incidents were not reported to UW-Madison police, which is why the numbers vary so widely.
And the number in that report — 318 sexual assaults in 2017 — has significant caveats.
For example, the allegations include 21 assaults that occurred prior to students’ being in college. Others may have occurred far away from campus involving perpetrators who may have nothing to do with the university.
The majority of the incidents from the sexual assault report come from “confidential resources,” including hotlines and counselors. In those reports, key details that would be needed for an investigation can be omitted, such as the identities of the victim and perpetrator and the location of the alleged assault.
And in 295 of the 318 reports in 2017, either the alleged perpetrator was unknown or not affiliated with the UW–Madison, meaning campus officials had no jurisdiction to investigate for possible disciplinary action.
That left 23 incidents eligible for investigation under the student disciplinary process. In 12 of those cases, survivors did not want to participate, leaving 11 complaints that were investigated, said Tonya Schmidt, director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.
Those are some of the reasons so few alleged assaults are investigated by police or the university — and why few perpetrators who commit sexual assault are penalized.
— Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and writer Maggie Ginsberg
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