There’s something you should know about Walker’s proposal on college sexual assault reporting

As the work week wound down, one of the big headlines here in Wisconsin was that Scott Walker didn’t want colleges to report sexual assaults. Highlighted were amendments to ss. chapter 36 in the proposed changes to the state budget and state statutes that would eliminate current requirements for (1) university staff to report to central administration and (2) for the campuses to report to the system the statistic counts of known incidents of sexual assault.

Soon after the story broke, UW System administration and the Governor’s office acknowledged that the System had been asking for the removal of these requirements (conveniently omitted were details on the complex, confusing, and inefficient nature this dual reporting responsibility at the campus level as well as how the request has probably been repeated annually for years).

Jezebel, the first piece I saw on the matter, has already added a mea culpa at the top of its previously published article. I by no means intend to defend Walker. But the public ire on this issue is unfortunately misplaced and misinformed, and that’s good news for Scott Walker right now.

The deletion of the statutory requirements regarding sexual assault are absolutely important, but they are more reflective of bad (and successful) political optics, rather than sound policy.

It is a terrible idea, politically, to appear like you’re soft on the issue of campus sexual assault. If you’re thinking about making a run for national political office, you definitely do not want to risk alienating 50% of the electorate (who tend to vote disproportionately high). But if you can get some media coverage on the issue, while it also distracts from the very real negative outcomes likely from the proposed budget cut and changes to campus governance, you look “unintimidated” in the face of liberal media attacks. Republican voters will only have their positive opinions about you and negative opinions about the mainstream media reinforced because you’re unfairly criticized without all the facts (still underreported) known about the issue! It’s a win-win, politically.


When I saw the Jezebel article, it was accompanied with Facebook comments of exasperation and attacks on the governor. Of course, as the internet is wont, the opinions shared had nothing of substance and discussed nothing proactive.

Friday night, I talked with a colleague at another system institution, and we shared the same laugh about how, as a practical matter, the changes to the statutes don’t actually matter and actually do make some of our work more efficient. Here’s how:

UW System is required to annually report the numbers of sexual assaults reported to campus staff, no matter when or where these assaults took place, and categorize them by one of four degrees as defined in state statute, which is also the way our campus policies define sexual assaults perpetrated by students (a terrible way of doing things from a student conduct administration perspective, but that’s a whole other matter).

The Clery Act requires campuses to report sexual assaults as forcible or non-forcible (changing under the updated rules taking effect soon). These two categories had overlap with the state statutes, when they occurred in the reporting years or in Clery reportable locations, requiring university staff at each campus to spend time sifting through each individual report–some anonymous with little detail–to make sure the incidents were categorized correctly and not miscounted or double reported to the respective government entities. Erring in the federal report could result in a fine of $35,000 per miscount, even if you over count. 

Since I began working in the UW System in 2012, I have heard criticisms of the dual reporting structure from numerous colleagues across the System. You can imagine it is challenging to take anonymous reports of disclosures from our confidential reporting sources and cross reference those with known reports through police and other channels, to try and make sure we’re not double counting for each report and that the numbers accurately reflect the information known.

And so, for as long as I’ve been around, which isn’t long I’ll admit, my colleagues from across the state, who do the work day-to-day, have complained (and no doubt advocated up the chain in meetings I’m not invited to) that the dual reporting unnecessarily complicates both reporting to our communities and our overseers. Why couldn’t we at least report using the same definitions of sexual assault, specifically the uniform criminal definition for Clery?

So the message went up to the UW System to lobby the state for change. Clery rules for over 4000 schools aren’t going to change just because our 26 campuses are inconvenienced by our legislature’s rules. And until any change occurs, the System isn’t going to say to the campus leadership to skip the Clery reporting, and of course risk our federal financial aid or substantial fines, in favor of focusing on the state definitions report alone.

Getting back to the budget proposal: Those quick to attack the governor on his proposed changes overlooked other examples of when state government was taken out of the way to make things work best by the people who do the work. In the state statutes granting public authority status to the UW Hospital and Clinics (ss. chapter 233), there is not a single reference to the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which guarantees patients privacy of their medical records (note: whether this was the case at any point since the mid-90s when both HIPAA and the hospital were established is not known to me, but it’s not currently referenced today). Does that mean the hospital shirks its federal obligations because its not currently in state law? Of course not. 

Of course the UW System–at least the people on the front lines who are committed to the educational mission and civil rights–are going to work to be better than compliant on the issues of interpersonal violence and gender equity. The real problem is that the budget proposal legitimately undermines our work in ways not discussed in the media.

This story, which when analyzed seems just too perfectly planned to be coincidence, serves Walker’s interests. Once the story broke that his budget proposal cut the reporting requirements, the System, possibly directed by the governor’s office, has to come out and say, “it’s not his fault, we asked for this” and Walker gets to look like his proposed statutory changes to reporting requirements are in the best interest of the system (which is true). He looks fine in the media, Jezebel and other media outlets have to backtrack, and the System has a little egg on their face because the reasons for requesting the change are too complicated for a soundbite or the AP wire. Walker supporters and Republicans generally laugh about this latest media gaffe and feel better about their chances in 2016.

And all of this obscures the real problems related to the Walker’s budget proposal and the issues of interpersonal violence at the UW System schools: The $300 million budget cut for the next two years – amounting to an estimated 2.5% or more of each individual campus’s total budget, and maybe much more for the county extensions – will do real damage to the ability of each campus to adequately serve and support victims of interpersonal violence, as well as to undertake the federally mandated responsibilities to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

Issuing “block grants” to the system forces difficult decisions upon campus priorities including federal responsibilities for compliance, debt obligations, contracts for employees, grant matching for existing research and programs, and staffing, hiring, and benefits. The dollars allocated will closely reflect the value of those priorities. If a campus decides on cuts to, say, victim services or investigative staff, Walker is insulated from the negative consequences of those decisions.

The draconian budget cuts, to shore up Walker’s failed budget of two years ago where his tax cuts failed to lead to increased economic growth and a net gain in state revenue, will further damage the UW System and the state. The collateral damage isn’t just the laid off employees; student victims will bear the consequences as well.

Students will have reduced contact to the remaining overburdened administrators and instructors who will be forced to be more “efficient.”  If you’ve got limited time and have more advisees, students in class, and projects because your colleagues were kicked to the curb, then its perfectly conceivable that even the best teachers will have to cut down on the time they spend one-on-one with students. On our campuses, instructors and staff often have the relationships with students that afford the opportunity to see warning signs of issues of concern.

Students may have felt comfortable reporting interpersonal violence precisely because it impacts their student experience in academics or involvement, or manifests in other behaviors of concern. When our relationships with students are diminished through the limitations of time and space due to the budget cuts, victims have reduced options on how to exercise agency in their own recovery: Imagine a situation where a student is struggling with anxiety from an assault or stalking or an abusive partner, and that anxiety is impacting their academic performance. If they seeks counseling or crisis services as the only course of action, that’s a great start, and the confidential counselor can of course share about reporting options and recommend avenues for academic support.

But if the student feels isolated from instructors due to being unable to see them in reduced office hour availability or because staying after class is not private enough, all the efforts to manage their anxiety through counseling are not going to get them the needed academic accommodations. If that instructor or advisor is buried in their work, it’ll be too late before they notice the student’s decline in performance before the end of the semester. The student is not going to request accommodations for the impact of a sexual assault via email, even if that is technically the most efficient means of requesting them.

Beyond the initial support and reparative measures, overburdened investigators will find themselves unable to resolve cases effectively with fair and thorough investigations, which are already often inconceivably difficult. Perpetrators may be able to continue on without being held accountable. Suboptimal investigations foster distrust in the system. All our efforts to encourage reporting will ultimately fail if students perceive the investigations as ineffective (I would consider optimal investigations to be fair and just in process, even if one of the parties ultimately feels unsatisfied with the specific outcomes).

As long as interpersonal violence affects any one of our students, we can be sure that these budget cuts will negatively impact their success on our campuses and after. And that’s what should really outrage us. It’s not the optics or the politics. It’s how these policies play out in the messy reality that is the college campus.

So if you were up in arms about Walker’s proposed changes to the UW System statutes regarding sexual assault, don’t just let that fire die with the clarification from the System administration where they take responsibility for the amendment to ss. 36.

If you’re not from Wisconsin, advocate for our students by contacting the members of the Joint Committee on Finance who have the most power over the direction of this budget bill and voicing your concerns about these budget cuts.

Wisconsin residents: Direct your concerns at your legislator and the JCF because if they go along with these budget cuts as proposed (to say nothing of the granting of public authority status scheduled to take effect in just over 16 months without any semblance of a System plan in place on how the new governance will be operationalized), then they are complicit in the further marginalization of victims, responsible for the failure to serve these students appropriately.

If you decide to sit on the sidelines, then you’re complicit too.


Detecting Serial Rapists on College Campuses

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in addition to a variety of others that get lost in our daily shuffle). So for me it’s a time to critically think about the way we’re raising awareness, and if we’re not undermining our traditional efforts (which are clearly not enough) by ignoring some key research, published just over 10 years ago.

This past week at work, my campus hosted Dr. David Lisak, who is best known for his research in to the predatory nature of most men who commit rape. He was the keynote speaker for our annual summit for sexual assault and violence prevention and facilitated a discussion for allegation investigators. While I had previously seen clips of the documentary based on his research with college men regarding the incidence of sexual predation, there was a substantial amount of information that really challenges the way I think about sexual assault prevention.

Often, the research indicates that bystander intervention programs, which enlist men and women as disrupters of sexual assaults before they occur, are effective programs. Rather than framing the issue as one of men as predators and potential rapists, it instead tries to train potential witnesses to take direct or indirect action to prevent assaults by others.

This approach is intended to bring men in to the conversation, appealing to them as men (who’ve been socialized to believe they are responsible, decisive, action-oriented) to step in. It is founded on the premise that we have to appeal to men through hegemonic masculine norms in order to converse with and bring them to action in gender equity work, something that is problematic but requires its own separate exploration.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lisak’s research presents a problem. He has found, in studies that have been replicated in other environments, that among college aged men, only 5% admit to actions that constitute sexual assault or rape. Of those men, 63% are responsible for 91% of the rape behaviors. His conclusion in the study is that 3% of men are serial rapists, responsible for 91% of rapes, among other violent crimes against women and children. In McWhorter’s study of U.S. Navy recruits, the findings were even more startling, with 13% of men acknowledging behavior that constitutes rape or attempted rape, and among them 71% are serial rapists responsible for 95% of all rapes.

“Great!” we could say, “not all men are rapists.” This is true. However, the 3% who commit the vast majority of rapes and other violent crimes against women/children are doing so because they are “undetected” as Lisak & Miller refer to them.

So for me the vexing issue coming out of this campus summit, in thinking about prevention in a college environment, is how to address the serial rapist issue. Bystander intervention programs I’ve worked with often treat sexual assault as a one-off event that likely results from over-intoxication by the potential victim, and requires people to notice and step in to make sure that person gets home safe and unharmed.

But if the vast majority of men who are likely to commit rape are predatory serial rapists, as Lisak’s and other research suggest, they are actively taking advantage of their victims in ways that may evade bystander intervention techniques taught to college students.

Not only will they continue to use alcohol to ply their potential victims in to isolation, advantageous to the assault, but they may choose environments where bystander interventions are less likely to occur–crowded bars, clubs, and house parties where anonymity is easier and bystander intoxication is more likely to cloud judgment, and thereby prevent successful bystander intervention.

They may also work collaboratively with other predatory men. Among the men interviewed, Lisak found that there were groups–notoriously, but not exclusively fraternities–that intentionally used parties and their social capital as party hosts to prey on new college women, with the tool of choice being cups of highly concentrated alcoholic punch to incapacitate their victims.

The interview transcript was turned in to a documentary with re-enactments of the dialogue. The language used is both disturbing and insightful. The way the man described the women as objects whose sole purpose was his satisfaction is key to understanding the way some men are viewing women on campus, and indifferent to (or worse, proud of) their own predatory behavior.

The Unintentional Risks of Bystander Interventions

Bystander Intervention can be an effective tool, but if we elide or omit the nature of serial rape among non-strangers, we are undermining our own efforts. If a serial rapist is thwarted by a bystander, who assumes it is potentially just a consent or communication issue, they will adjust their tactics to be more successful in the future.

Additionally, the potential rapist is not being held accountable. They do not feel shame for having tried to take advantage of their potential victim. They will feel anger or frustration for being prevented from accomplishing their goal: rape. This will be highly motivating for them to learn from their “mistakes” and find a way to successfully rape in the future, figuring out ways to avoid bystander interventions.

So in many cases, bystander intervention will prevent individual sexual assaults. But it will also teach predators the means to continue to avoid detection as serial rapists. The intrepid among them will attend bystander intervention programs to learn how to continue to be “undetected.”

Serial Rape and Student Conduct

From a student conduct perspective, we’re also challenged on how to hold alleged rapists accountable, if they are serial rapists. Dr. Lisak appeared on CBS a few years ago to talk about the basic synopsis of his research and its implications for investigators, and that can be extended to campus administrators in student conduct.

The reality is that we’re constrained by Title IX and due process. It can be incredibly invasive or resource-intensive to investigate the alleged rapists background to find out if this is a one-off or if they are a serial offender who hasn’t been caught, who has been practicing or enabled, who has other victims.

As I said above, if random bystander X intervenes in a situation, that information may never come to the attention of campus officials as a prior indicator of predatory behavior that can inform an understanding of the alleged student’s motivation and the appropriate sanctions if they’re found responsible.

An investigation could turn it up, but given the scope and scale of the party and bar environment on my campus, it’s just as, if not more, likely that there’s not a snowball’s chance in June that we’re going to hear about it. At least not with some incredibly invasive investigation, which may then draw both press and Federal scrutiny–risks not likely to be palatable to University administrators.

Of course the flip side is a Title IX lawsuit and negative press coverage regarding the campus’s failure to prevent sexual assault. Personally (and professionally) I’d rather deal with the former.

This may require the development of Campus Threat policies and procedures that empower campus officials (and University law enforcement officers) with these investigative responsibilities in order to justify it under legislative, judicial, or media scrutiny. Of course, serial rapists going ignored or unpunished would constitute a campus environment hostile to women so I think it’ll likely stand up, given the research.

But the campus efforts should not be limited only responding to incidents that are reported. We should be working actively to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Changing Prevention Efforts

One of my responsibilities this year is in developing some efforts for bystander intervention skill development related to high risk alcohol use. As part of that I’m also reflecting on the ways to incorporate sexual assault prevention in to the program. Student leaders, who are the intended participants of this program, need to be educated on the risk of the serial rapist, without sending the message that all men are rapists.

In my mind this proves to be more challenging.

Sharing the statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a tiny fraction of men on campus may be heartening to some–we who who don’t rape can feel good that we’re the “good ones.” It also may feel daunting to know that confronting a potential sexual assault may not prevent one in the future. Without the expectation to both intervene in the moment, and inform someone in a position of authority, the intervention may only delay the attack to some future victim.

This might conflict with the bystander’s assumptions about the potential rapist: Tarnish an innocent man’s reputation or prevent a potential future assault, without knowing for sure one way or the other.

There may also be a failure to see if group behavior is somehow reinforcing individual serial rape behavior. Like the men in Lisak’s study, there are still some out there who conspire together to use the college party environment as a means to commit sexual assaults (where have prosecutions on that atrocity been?!).

Add in the tendency of college students to distrust authority and resist reporting anyway, unless they’re personally impacted in some way, and you can see the numerous wrinkles to this new way of thinking about sexual assault prevention.

Going forward there has to be concerted efforts to prevent, investigate, and hold accountable serial rape behaviors. To ignore this issue continues to put college women at risk. It can (and it’s only a matter of time before it will) put universities at risk, which may be the interest convergence necessary to start making changes in this area.

For whatever reason, because the research findings have been available for over a decade, it is concerning to me that we unintentionally reinforce rape culture through our lack of resources to fully investigate the alleged offender, our failure to proactively discuss sexual assault with college men in as many avenues as possible, or the meaningful steps to identify “bad actors”: those who have anti-social traits and use alcohol as a means to sexually assault.

These are challenging issues, requiring significant collaboration and education efforts on campus, but to do less would give the message to the predators that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try again.