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We need to address the aftermath of sexual misconduct at Duke

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Given my easygoing lifestyle, I didn’t think that I’d ever personally face sexual misconduct. In December of my freshman year, I experienced a brutal wake-up call about the reality of sexual misconduct here at Duke. There was a situation with a fellow first-year who wanted to do something I didn’t want to do, but his intentions were clear.

Afterwards, I was lucky enough to have friends who supported me, but I still didn’t really know how to deal—in fact, I had no idea whether I could do anything without implicating innocent but loosely-involved friends. Because of the incident, I spent hours of spring semester at CAPs, not feeling safe at Duke. The most damaging thing was when I’d see the perpetrator walking around campus, unscathed.

Last semester, a Chronicle column that really inspired me was Rebecca Torrence’s take on the reporting process. I found the statistics and the student testimony extremely well-researched, such as the fact that out of 169 reports regarding the Title IX policy, only three resulted in disciplinary action. However, I’m not sure I would have drawn the same conclusion from the information; while survivors have no moral obligation to report, it is a shame that they should feel stymied from it in the first place due to their slim chances at gaining anything. I’m left to conclude the system itself needs to change.

Prevention has been, and should always be, the paramount priority surrounding sexual misconduct discourse. There are efforts by Duke to educate students about prevention, such as one-off, O-week events and the Alcohol EDU that students complete prior to matriculating. Student groups such as AOTA and the Me Too Monologues, as well others participating in the imminently-approaching S.H.A.P.E. initiative, have made infinitely valuable strides to shed light on these issues. But because sexual misconduct is tragically ongoing, there should be more talk about what to do in its aftermath.

Duke’s Office of Student Conduct website lists resources for survivors after a Title IX violation. However, it was only after my incident that I parsed through the website to learn about them. I’d never heard of many of the resources before, such as the Ombudsperson and Duke Reach. It was three months afterwards when I felt I knew enough, such as the amnesty usually offered for alcohol and drug use surrounding an incident, to file a report. 

Jayne Grandes, the Title IX coordinator, confirms to me that the number one complaint regarding sexual misconduct reports is “the need to make the process clearer,” including coordinating resources to work together. I believe another option is for the university to interweave resource awareness into the student body, and make more information transparent. As I sought to learn more about what practical resources students can pursue aside from therapy, I found that Duke offers personnel who can “discuss options for accommodations,” which include housing and academics, but there remains an aura of vagary to the public surrounding exactly what these options are, or how streamlined this process is.

To learn more about Title IX resources, I contacted the Office of Student Contact, and Victoria Krebs responded. According to Krebs, there have been 134 reports since graduation. While this figure is already too gargantuan, Krebs notes that sexual misconduct is widely underreported, indicating that students are possibly unaware of their options or too afraid to report.

Krebs directs me to the same survey from 2018 conducted to Duke students about sexual misconduct that the 48% statistic was drawn from. The report demonstrates that during the Fall 2017 semester, the number of sexual assaults was consistently highest for first years. This is an unfortunate but unsurprising statistic, as first years are unaccustomed to the partying, often-dangerous lifestyle of certain parts of the university. Furthermore, 30.4% of female undergraduates who reported being a survivor said the perpetrator was an acquaintance. In freshman fall, when students are the most intent on meeting new people, this makes them even more vulnerable.

These freshmen also are more likely to be unaware of the available resources afterwards, like I was, and less likely to have stabilized, support systems here to carry them through trauma. For survivors, it can feel shameful and intimidating to directly ask what they can do. It would be much easier if they had this knowledge base already一further reason for actively promoting this information beforehand.

Furthermore, sometimes it isn’t enough to help survivors emotionally cope; sometimes, restorative justice is the most healing. The loss of autonomy from such encounters ripples long afterwards. Though I no longer feel weak when I see the perpetrator, I would have emotionally recovered at a faster pace had I been able to take back control by seeing some form of disciplinary justice一another avenue through which Duke is failing survivors.

For example, although the university offers a no-contact directive, less than half of Duke undergraduate women believe that Duke “enables sexual assault victims to continue education without interacting with the perpetrator.” Krebs states that they are “typically issued when a student fails to honor the request of another student to not be contacted.” This implies that they aren’t usually issued as a preventive measure after singular incidents of sexual misconduct, but after repeated interactions. As a no-contact directive doesn’t even show up on a student’s record, I see no reason for this. When I tried to pursue one, I had to debate over whether I was certain that the perpetrator had malicious intentions; I have never been so certain of anything in my life, and never received the directive.

Likewise, although her case was much more extreme, the interviewee in Torrence’s article was informed that she didn’t have enough evidence to prove what had happened, and thus couldn’t pursue discipline. To truly curtail sexual misconduct, perpetrators need to be held accountable, but an insurmountable burden of proof falls heavily on survivors, who are more focused on escaping their situation rather than compiling evidence. They are later left with little but their word. 

This leeway afforded to respondents is a pattern, as during disciplinary hearings, the respondent can choose to not be present at all. Likewise, what weighs into the adjudication are factors not directly related to the incident, such as “previous criminal or disciplinary history,” “threats of further sexual misconduct,”  and “the willingness of any individual named in the report(s) as having been subject to misconduct to participate in the investigation.” As valid as these concerns, the outcome of a hearing should be contingent on one, black-and-white factor: did the incident happen or not?

One speculation for this is the university’s desire to protect its reputation, as in 2013 Duke was sued by a student expelled for sexual assault. However, our students’ safety and well-being should be more important, and disciplinary action doesn’t need to take such an extreme form with such pushback一it can involve seriously sitting down with and warning respondents, and suspending them of other privileges.

 While I can only rejoice in the several efforts at Duke for prevention, I don’t believe we should sacrifice talk about prevention for talk about resources. In fact, they should work hand in hand. Increased transparency and strengthening in resources wouldn’t enable more incidents, if prevention efforts are robust; it should only foster empathy and awareness. The fact remains that Duke needs to put aside concerns about its reputation to seriously foster the healing from sexual misconduct.

Carrie Wang is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.

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