Students who are raped turn to colleges for justice

February 16, 1992|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Staff Writer Lou Ferrara contributed to this article.

Increasingly, in Maryland and elsewhere across the nation, university women who say they have been sexually assaulted or raped by someone they know are looking to the colleges for justice instead of to the criminal courts.

"It's the beginning of a wave," said Andrea Parrot, a Cornell University professor and one of the pioneers in the study of sexual assault on college campuses.

A huge gap still exists between the number of coeds who claim to have been raped by fellow students -- one in four, according to the only national survey -- and the scattering of charges being made. But the pressure of dealing with such serious charges is shaking up college administrations and campus judicial systems more accustomed to dealing with rowdy behavior, cheating and theft.

Many schools have not responded well.

Now, sued in court by angry students and attacked in public forums for mishandling their complaints, colleges by the hundreds are revising their disciplinary systems and rules of conduct, and are otherwise scrambling to change their ways.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa last week, the vice president of student affairs resigned and the president, Frank Borkowski, came under intense fire following revelations that the administration had improperly bypassed the student disciplinary process in the case of a former star basketball player accused of rape.

The vice president, Dan Wolbolt, also an athletic booster club member, personally took over the case in 1989 as the team headed to tournament play, and canceled a suspension when the woman withdrew her complaint -- under pressure, she says, from other players.

After four other female students filed complaints of assault or harassment against the same player, the university revoked his athletic scholarship, he left school, and the regents ordered an -- investigation.

Dr. Borkowski, under attack from the public and government officials, apologized profusely to angry regents last week, ordered university attorneys to begin contacting victims with offers of help and announced reforms, including a system of victim advocates.

Still, the regents moved his annual August evaluation to next month.

Tomorrow, at the University of Maryland at College Park, a case that has spilled controversy across the campus comes back before a board of student judges, the first of a series of confidential hearings scheduled in the next three weeks by university officials now under attack by both the female accuser and the lawyer for the men accused.

The case stems from the complaint of Sharon Williams, who charged that she was sexually assaulted by three fraternity brothers in a dormitory room at the university in October 1990, when she was an 18-year-old freshman visiting from Mary Washington College in Virginia. The men deny it.

Ms. Williams entrusted her complaint to the campus judicial system, a confidential process, because she thought it would be faster, fairer, more private and less traumatic than the criminal courts, she said.

The case took almost an entire academic year to be heard. The student judges decided that Ms. Williams was telling the truth and that the men should be expelled.

But when that ruling was challenged by a lawyer for the men and the university decided to throw out the finding and repeat the process, Ms. Williams was so angered she decided to make her story public.

"I am infuriated," she said. "It's over a year afterward and those boys are still in school. It stinks."

Colleges as courts

There are no comprehensive national figures on how many women report rapes or sexual assaults on college campuses, or on the outcome of their charges.

But around the nation, researchers studying the issue say universities are becoming the court of preference for women who seek justice for wrongs that are little understood by the public: sexual assault by an acquaintance.

Colleges historically have judged the behavior of their students, usually determining the truth about infractions of the student code through student hearings, a process unencumbered by the rules of evidence or high standards of proof that govern trials in the criminal courts.

But as those systems have begun to be challenged by the more serious issue of sexual assault, a number of schools have found themselves sued by female students who felt badly treated by the system.

In Maryland last year, complaints led to changes in the way such cases are handled on at least two public university campuses.

At Frostburg State University, a man the judiciary system said should be expelled for sexual assault challenged the finding. He argued that the university had sided with the victim by providing her with an advocate at the hearing.

When the university canceled the expulsion after consulting the state attorney general's office on its procedures, the woman filed charges in criminal court, and a judge directed the accused man to stay away from the campus. But by then, he had withdrawn.

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