Sexual Assault on Vanderbilt’s Campus: Policy, Procedures, and Progress

Welcome to “This Vanderbilt Life,” to the second installment of the two-part series that attempts to answer, “What is Consent at Vanderbilt?” The last podcast deeply considered the culture on campus that surrounds consent; this episode narrows on the process that follows sexual assault.

The 2015 Campus Climate Survey reported that only 34 percent of students understood the formal procedures for investigating sexual violence. This podcast, the second installment of a two-part series that focuses on sexual consent at Vanderbilt, aims to increase that number — to inform the campus community about the resources available to solve this issue.

What resources are available to students who experience sexual assault?

How to Report Sexaul Assaulttt

What is the Project Safe Center? Where is it, and how do I access it?

The Project Safe building is located by the Old Gym Admissions Office on 304 West Side Row. It’s by Towers 1, behind McGill house, in a row of brick buildings, adjacent to the K.C. Potter Center.  Their office is open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Their hotline is available 24/7, and can be reached at 615-322-SAFE (7233).

The Project Safe Center, under the direction of Cara Tuttle Bell, has three Prevention Educator/Victim Resources specialists. The Prevention Educator facet of that title is about campus programming: these specialists run Green Dot Bystander Intervention Training sessions, host Effective Consent Informational Programs, Survivor Solidarity Workshops, as well as programs like The Escalation Workshop on how to effectively navigate relationships. The Victim Resource part of their job is to support any person affected by power-based personal violence. 

“A lot of times folks think that Project Safe is just a resource for students who have experienced sexual assault, which it absolutely we are, but we also do a lot of other things. Any student who is currently, or has been, in a dating violence or a domestic violence relationship, students experiencing any kind of harassment, students experiencing stalking… any kind of sexual violence. So it doesn’t have to be rape, it can be other forms of sexual assault as well,” said Sarah Jordan Welch, a Prevention Educator and Victim Resource Specialist.

Project Safe Center will also help students who are in relationships that they’re unhappy with. Sarah Jordan Welch jokes that she is “very good at breaking up with people,” and says she provides her services to assist students through the ends of relationships. Additionally, she helps students who have had photos that were posted on the internet without their consent, and helps navigate students through that process. 

Additionally, they assist students in getting housing reassignments after an instance of power-based personal violence. The Project Safe Center can prompt stay-away orders. These orders are not punitive; it simply mandates that those two people cannot have contact with one another. No contact is allowed: students can’t send messages or have friends attempt to communicate. These stay-away orders only become punitive when they are broken. The Project Safe Center also provides academic accommodations, such as rescheduling an exam or pushing back deadlines. They can assist a student in obtaining Dean’s notifications during that time.

The Project Safe Center is also available for hospital accompaniment.

“If a student has experienced assault and wants a rape kit or a sexual assault exam, we will meet them at Vanderbilt hospital and help them through that process as well,” Sarah Jordan Welch said. 

The center also ensures that students are connected with resources, whether that be ongoing help through student health services, or assisting students to meet with the Chaplain if they desire, or if they want to see an on-going therapist at the PCC.

The Project Safe Center doesn’t just help those who have been directly affected by power-based personal violence; they will also assist friends and family of survivors to assist their loved ones through trauma.

What is the difference between a private and a confidential resource?

The majority of the resources on campus are private resources. These resources are typically mandated reporters, which means they are required to relay any information they receive about sexual assault to Vanderbilt’s Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disabilities Service Center (EAD).  This information provided to the EAD will be used to gather statistical information about sexual assault cases (to detect patterns, and ensure campus safety), and to potentially use if the EAD decides to launch an investigation. 

A confidential resource,  however, does not have to relay this information about an incident to campus authorities — unless, as Project Safe’s Sarah Jordan Welch said, “you are thinking of harming yourself or someone else, or if there is a larger threat to campus.”  These larger threats to campus include information about serial perpetrators, who repeatedly instigate cases of power-based personal violence. 

Currently, the three confidential resources on campus are the Psychological Counseling Center, Student Health Services, and a University Chaplain acting in the capacity as a Chaplain. If a Chaplain is teaching a class, then they are considered a professor (and therefore mandated reporters).

The Project Safe Center, in the fall of 2016, will be given the distinction of a limited confidential resource as well. A limited confidential resource will keep a student’s identity anonymous, but will relay statistical information about the sexual assault to the EAD for safety purposes. 

What exactly is power-based personal violence? 

Power-based personal violence is an inclusive term that encompasses sexual assault, sexual violence, dating/sexual violence, emotional, physical, and psychological relationship abuse. It often involves manipulation, power, and control.  

What is Title IX?

Title IX is a federal law that’s part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It says that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX was intended to prohibit discrimination based on sex at educational institutions that receive federal funding — which includes Vanderbilt. This law is commonly known for aiming to create tolerant classroom environments and for funding college athletics. Title IX has since been reinterpreted by the courts to include sexual assault on campus as a form of sex-based discrimination, requiring colleges to investigate and adjudicate reports of sexual assault. If a student has been sexually assaulted, the student may claim that they cannot take advantage of their university environment, according to Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report on Campus Sexual Assault.

“If colleges don’t handle such reports promptly and fairly, they may be blamed for violating the rights of alleged victims and creating a hostile environment for learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which is charged with enforcing the law,” wrote Wilson.

Sarah Jordan Welch, a Victim Resource Specialist at the Project Safe Center, says that Title IX Coordinators (whose responsibilities are to investigate sexual assault cases) are housed within the EAD to ensure all students have an accepting academic environment. 

“A student should be able to exist on this campus, learn, have access to education and university activities and not be hindered by experiences of sexual violence, specifically,” Welch said. 

Vanderbilt is currently under investigation by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for potential violations in the Title IX policy. 

What is the EAD?

Vanderbilt’s Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Center (EAD) is housed in Suite 808 in the Baker Building, across the street from Warren and Moore Colleges. Within the EAD is a Title IX Coordinator. This team conducts investigations after a student has experienced instances of sexual assault, and only under specific circumstances: when they receive information from either the student themselves, or from a mandated reporter, and if they have sufficient identification information to further look into a student’s assault.  

The EAD, if given sufficient identification about a victim-survivor of sexual assault, may choose to conduct an investigation. Additionally, they may reach out to the perpetrator if they receive that information. Regardless if a victim-survivor wants the EAD to conduct an investigation, or if they want the EAD to even reach out to the perpetrators, the EAD often must follow through with the process in order to uphold Title IX requirements. However, a victim-survivor can choose not to be a part of an investigation launched by the EAD.

What is the Clery Act?

The Clery Act, signed in 1990, requires that college campuses report information about crimes on campus. They must disclose this information, and are legally enforced to do so by the United States Department of Education. 

Many of Vanderbilt’s resources are mandated reporters in order to comply with the Clery Act. Project Safe’s distinction as a limited confidential resource, in the fall of 2016, will ensure that Vanderbilt is still upholding its Title IX and Clery requirements. The Project Safe Center will still disclose the legally required statistical information, while being able to keep the identities of the victim-survivors confidential from the EAD upon request.

What is VSAP?

Vanderbilt’s Sexual Assault Prevention Committee (known as VSAP) is housed within Vanderbilt Student Government. This grass-roots, student committee is brand-new this year, and is now led by senior Kait Spear. The committee is composed of eleven undergraduate students and has two main initiatives: to publicize the national “It’s On Us” campaign, to create a Student Perspective Report that is an exhaustive analysis of current EAD reporting and investigation processes and current campus policies. This will be released in early to mid-April. 

What is the Provost’s Task Force for Sexual Assault?

Provost Susan Wente convened the Task Force, composed of 18 faculty members, to help tackle the issue of sexual assault on Vanderbilt’s campus. The task force has representatives from Project Safe, the EAD office, from all four undergraduate colleges within the university as well as members from the Nursing School, the Owen School of Management, and Divinity School.

After the 2015 Campus Climate Survey was released in January of this year, the Task Force created a list of recommendations for the university to combat the problem. 

What role does Student Accountability play in this process?

While the EAD office conducts the investigations, the Office of Student Accountability has the authority to charge and sanction students. Once the EAD has determined a verdict to the cases, the Office of Student Accountability will deliver the consequences. 

The Office of Student Accountability has standard policies that determine that certain actions will receive certain consequences to ensure consistency and fairness. In addition, these policies also set expectations for the student body, and give them an idea of the consequences of these actions.  

How does the university investigation process differ from a criminal investigation process?

The EAD’s investigation process is completely separate from the police investigation process. Students may choose to file a criminal investigation after a sexual assault on their own. They can contact law enforcement separate from the university if they wish to pursue this criminal investigation. These criminal investigations typically take longer than on-campus EAD investigations.

Vanderbilt University does not wait for the outcome of a criminal investigation before it conducts its own investigation. The investigations may go on concurrently, or a student may choose to undergo a criminal investigation before or after the university has concluded their investigation. 

The EAD looks for violations in Vanderbilt’s Sexual Misconduct and Other Forms of Power-Based Personal Violence, while criminal investigations look for violations of the law. 

These two processes have completely different standards in sanctioning and charging students. The EAD functions on the preponderance of evidence standard. If the evidence shows there is greater than a 50 percent likelihood that a sexual assault has occurred, students are charged. Conversely, the criminal process operates on the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, meaning it must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt that the sexual assault occurred. The most severe consequence a student receives from the university would be expulsion; criminal consequences can often be more severe. 

Vanderbilt, much like many universities, uses a completely separate vocabulary when determining sexual assault cases. Vanderbilt uses the terms “non-consensual sexual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact,” instead of their legal equivalents, “rape and sexual battery.” Since Vanderbilt’s investigation is not part of the legal system, they do not use the same legal definitions. 

A criminal investigation case often takes years. The re-trial for Vanderbilt’s highly publicized 2013 rape case will commence next week, on April 4. Sarah Jordan Welch highlights the drawn-out investigation process.

“That’s another thing that have to consider: ‘how long do I want to be spending time on this?’ Particularly considering the likelihood (or not) of justice, whatever that means to the survivor. They could very likely expect to be cross-examined by defense, and the job of the defense is to make them seem not trustworthy. A lot of folks are not trained in the neurobiology of trauma and understanding why a person might forget chunks of an event or why they didn’t talk to the police initially,” Welch said. 

When is Sexual Assault Awareness Week on Vanderbilt’s Campus? How can students get involved?  

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Vanderbilt’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week, in the spirit of this month, is from April 11 – 15.

  • The Project Safe Center will be tabling in Sarratt from 11 – 1 to spread awareness from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Monday – Friday.
  • Monday, April 11 will feature a screening of the Hunting Ground in Sarratt Cinema, and will be followed by a discussion.
  • Tuesday, April 12 offers students a Survivor Solidarity Workshop from 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the BCC.
  • Wednesday, April 13 has a Prevention Procession, leading from Library Lawn to the Kissam Multipurpose Room.
  • Thursday, April 14 offers a six-hour Green Dot training session
  • Friday, April 15 the Project Safe Center will have an open house in their building.

Special thanks to Sidney Silberman, Sara Starr, Asheeka Desai, Cara Tuttle Bell, Sarah Jordan Welch, Lizzy Shanasarian, Kevin Groll and Reggie Wimbley participating in the podcast, for Sara Ernst with the interviewing and editing help, Carly Meyers for the music, and Bosley Jarrett and Zach Berkowitz with design.

You may also like