This is Part 2 of a series on campus sexual assault at the University of Louisville. Read Part 1.
As she sat in her office in the University of Louisville’s PEACC Center recently, Tisha Pletcher calmly explained, step-by-step, how a sexual assault survivor would report an assault to the school.
It took her over 30 minutes.
As the director of PEACC, the on-campus sexual violence advocacy center, Pletcher routinely helps survivors at every stage of the process — from just needing to talk to reporting an assault.
And traffic to the already understaffed center doubled this semester, so she’s been explaining the process more and more.
From complaint to sanction, the length of the process is one of multiple problems in navigating the system, acknowledging survivors’ experiences and finding justice.
For most of the problems, there is no clear solution.
No model to follow
There is no gold standard a college can model their hearing process after, Pletcher said.
“These are issues that schools across the country are wrestling with,” she added. “It’s not that anybody doesn’t want it to be easier or better. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.”
Instead, there is a list of accepted best practices to provide some guidance. One point on the list: Minimize the risk of traumatizing the individual again as much as possible. Another: Protect due process rights of both parties.
The university generally follows that outline. During a UofL sexual assault hearing, students can be separated by a partition or sit in different rooms to avoid contact. Direct cross-examination, frowned upon for its potential to traumatize survivors, is forbidden unless each side consents to it.
Potential changes stemming from proposed Title IX regulations could change that. It is driven by a focus on due process with small considerations made for survivors.
Overall, Pletcher calls the proposal “harmful” and “concerning.”
First, a university would only be responsible for sexual assault reports directly made to the dean of students office. Professors would be under no obligation to report something a student told them, potentially in confidence, as they currently are.
Hearings would be required. Cross-examination would be allowed, but a student’s adviser, typically a lawyer, would be the only one able to speak. While preventing direct confrontation, it could create situations in which a lawyer could grill a survivor.
UofL’s system doesn’t allow advisers to speak, somewhat leveling the playing field should a student not be able to obtain a lawyer.
That could also shift: Advisers would be able to argue on the behalf of a student under the proposal. It could provide a degree of separation but could exacerbate the situation if one student could afford a lawyer while the other couldn’t.
Schools would be required to provide advisers, should a student need one. But the proposal is foggy on what type of adviser that would entail, UofL’s Title IX Coordinator Brian Bigelow said in an interview earlier this month.
“I think it’s assumed that we’re not going to be providing attorneys to students,” he said.
UofL uses a hearing system that most consider to be fair. Those who have been through UofL’s process — a survivor, a witness, a hearing panelist — couldn’t think of clear ways to make it more fair or protect students’ rights more.
“In general, some schools mess it up,” Joey Wilkerson, a former hearing panelist at UofL, said. “But UofL — UofL gets it right.”
But some say there is room for improvement. One survivor, Sue Eng Ly, said most of the problems she faced as she navigated UofL’s hearing process stemmed from ingrained beliefs and bias, which would require more than a quick policy change.
For Ly, a third-year law student, reporting was a way to confront and deal with her assault, even though she assumed she wouldn’t prevail in a hearing. Going through the hearing process seemed to be the “most comfortable” option, she said.
In an ideal world, all sexual assaults would be able to get a fair chance in the criminal justice world, Ly added. But because of what she considers a biased system, reporting to police is not always the best option.
UofL Police typically receive under 20 reports of sexual misconduct a year, reports show, with the bulk of those reports being domestic violence. Three sex-based crimes have been reported this year — two in the spring semester, one in the fall.
Out of an unspecified number of conduct reports regarding sexual misconduct at UofL this year, only two resulted in sanctions, according to an open records request. (Insider Louisville requested the number of conduct reports, but received the number of sanctions instead.)
“Not that many” sexual assaults are reported through the conduct process, Wilkerson said. Of four sexual assault hearings Wilkerson oversaw, one was found guilty of sexual assault. Another was guilty of a different violation.
The end result doesn’t always align with how the hearing panel feels, but based in facts presented in the hearing, he said.
A survivor’s take
Every stereotype about assault victims was going to be perpetuated, Ly recalled thinking before reporting a sexual assault. But she wasn’t prepared for how pervasive it was at all stages of the process, she said.
Ly said she felt the hearing panelists and officer all felt they were doing the right things, but weren’t focused on the assault itself. She focused on the night of the assault, she said, while her alleged attacker focused on their relationship and “everything else.”
A student conduct coordinator gathers evidence and witness statements into a hearing packet before the process culminates in a hearing. Both parties can recommend witnesses to be interviewed by the officer beforehand, Ly said of her experience.
But who is considered a relevant witness? Ly didn’t suggest witnesses because no one else witnessed her assault, but her alleged attacker used witnesses to discuss their past history. Ly said she felt the decision to allow the witnesses favored the accused side, insinuating a history with her attacker meant the assault may have been warranted.
“No one saw it … so no one else matters,” she said.
Ly’s hearing packet included tweets her attacker tweeted that day and a photo of the forecast, “which isn’t relevant at all,” she said. Looking back, she would have asked to include data explaining common psychological reactions to trauma and assault.
A neutral party handles everything and both sides get a chance to explain their side, Ly said, adding the set-up itself was fair.
Ly’s panel “naturally, obviously, sadly” didn’t find her alleged attacker responsible, she said, but she assumed that would happen.
“(I) was prepared to not be shocked, but it didn’t make it any less shocking.”
A best practice scenario would aim to balance due process with minimal retraumatization for survivors, while doing so in a timely fashion but not fast enough to skimp on investigating claims, Bigelow of UofL said.
Nancy Cantalupo has been working on the issue nationally for over 20 years as student activist, a college administrator, an attorney for victims, a policymaker and a researcher. “One of the hardest things to deal with” is “making them both speedy and fair,” Cantalupo told Insider.
UofL’s process takes multiple months to complete, from first statement to hearing ruling. Ly’s process took roughly three months, she said.
The sheer length of the process can be traumatizing, Pletcher of PEACC Center said. A survivor relives the assault throughout the process, and professors don’t understand how long the process can take, causing confusion, she added.
“They do what they can to make it as succinct as possible,” Pletcher said. “Bottom line is sometimes there’s a lot of back and forth that has to happen.”
The timing of reporting and other remedies can be difficult, Ly said. After reporting, she could ask for a no contact order, but her alleged attacker would find out about the order before knowing she had made the report, she said.
“It was a tricky situation,” Ly said, adding she ultimately didn’t get a no contact order despite seeing her alleged attacker in class.
Trying to fix an imperfect system
One thing Ly would change about UofL’s system: Don’t allow both parties to be in the same room during the hearing. The anxiety of that potential situation was “enough,” she said.
The hearing itself can last anywhere from two to six hours, Wilkerson said. But UofL is “really good” about separating people who need to be separated, he said. The proposed Title IX regulations would allow universities to continue such separations.
Due to student privacy laws and a subsequent lack of research, it can be difficult for those outside the system to find faults in it to fix, Cantalupo said. There are public claims that accused students are too harshly punished, or accusers saying they don’t punish at all.
“The problem is that there is very little actual data to determine that,” Cantalupo said.
Schools can say they’re doing best practice and they might be — but they can’t share it, Gretchen Hunt said.
In her position in the state attorney general’s office, Hunt directs victim advocacy and training efforts. Training Kentucky’s universities in things like report handling and active bystander training fall under her office.
Consulting survivors in the creation of hearing processes and trainings could help produce more “trauma-informed hearings,” Hunt said.
This could mean separating the parties, allowing breaks or be more clear on the overall process, she said. Schools should structure the environment so it is less traumatic to retell the story.
UofL’s system stems from a 2012 task force created to review policies and implement Obama-era guidance on how to handle sexual assaults on campus.
Multiple school officials, including the PEACC Director at the time and Dean of Students Michael Mardis, served. “Numerous” taskforce members were survivors’ rights advocates, a UofL spokesman said, but they didn’t ask if anyone was actually a survivor.
Hearing panelists receive around five hours of training to cover all conduct violations, Wilkerson said. More training specific to handling sexual assaults is necessary — you “need a little bit more” when dealing with rape, he said.
Training should include more information on how trauma appears after a sexual assault, Hunt said. It can impact memory and cause behavior around the accused, like texting them after an assault, that outsiders may find confusing or lead to bias.
Challenging mindsets and shifting biases through conversation could also help.
Now a week away from graduating from UofL’s law school, Wilkerson talks to fraternities and sororities about consent and assault through his group, Greek Law. He also acts as an adviser for students going through the hearing process.
The hearing and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice early in the semester spurred conversation, he said. Seeing a friend share a previously unknown assault or have a sorority stand with survivors can create a dialogue that could change minds, he said.
To aid in the dialogue and challenge bias, Ly and other law students created an art exhibit. Housed in both the law school and student center, the exhibit showed what survivors were wearing when they were assaulted.
Ly donated some of her clothes to the exhibit.
On a larger scale, Ly and her group hope to make the system at UofL more equitable, potentially working on statewide policy. “We have a lot of aspirations and goals,” she said.
Ly isn’t sure what the ultimate ask will look like, but they’re going to get “the ball rolling on how to make it different.”