Osgerby: Institutional shortcomings in sexual assault cases

BY PAUL OSGERBY | APRIL 20, 2015 5:00 AM

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Iowa State’s campus is playing host to a federal investigation in regards to a sexual-assault case, where the father of the victim, who remains anonymous for the protection of her identity, filed a complaint of mishandling the internal examination and the resulting re-victimization of his daughter.

The father accused ISU President Steven Leath, and other college presidents, of spending too much time involved in the discourse surrounding sexual assault and not in enacting policy changes. He has a point.

Patrick Whetstone, the perpetrator who is now facing charges, allegedly forcibly imposed various sex-acts on the victim after an on-campus party in March 2014. The 19-year-old woman dropped out of the semester. In May that year, she identified Whetstone as the attacker. Upon returning to school in August, she discovered that the campus-provided housing had placed her next door to the man.

How in all possible conscious thought could the university’s housing department allow that to happen?

The university allegedly couldn’t reassign the housing. Iowa State’s attorney Paul Tanaka could merely respond that the student assistance office is available for those in crisis, “especially those who have experienced sexual assault,” as he told the Des Moines Register.

There are two important distinctions that I recognize with this case: 1) sexual assault is prevalent in college culture (disgustingly to the degree that it is seemingly a norm), which is very much not alien to this state, and 2) there is an institutional failure within the university framework.

The cases span from Florida this past spring to the UI campus in the past several years. What is startling is that fewer than one-third of reported sexual-assault cases nationwide result in the expulsion of the offender.

Another daunting number is that ISU is one of at least 97 colleges, including Drake University, facing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Universities are not doing their part to properly handle such cases in the most effective and just manner. Furthermore, the ISU victim’s father is correct that too much is spent facilitating the discussion of sexual assault on campus. UI President Sally Mason is no stranger to this controversy.

Following the slew of reported sexual-assault cases in recent years, the UI adopted a new Six-Point Plan to Combat Sexual Assault in February 2014. It identifies as: “Crack down on offenders, increase support for survivors, improve prevention and education, improve communication, add funding, and listen more and report back.”

Though well-intentioned, the language is ambiguous and open-ended. It is purposefully meant to allow overarching interpretations in order to address the issues case-by-case. However, that could ultimately be its demise.  I see it allowing for more lapses in the future through misapplications of its ideals.

There is a lack of fundamental change within the guidelines of our current attempts to combat sexual assault. It seems that only transitory, or quasi-evolutionary, steps are being made when perhaps an overhaul is necessary.

This allows the college culture of sexual assault to continue. Furthermore, and most importantly, institutions are stagnating in addressing these invasions of the human body.

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