Interview with Ashley Carenbauer, a student at Kent State University and a victim of sexual assault on campus. Ashley wants her story to be heard so other people don’t have to go through the same thing she did.
By: Mackenzie Wallace, Bob Vickers, Alison Reilly, Terrell Johnson
The number of sexual assaults reported at Kent State each year, and college campuses across the nation, is relatively low compared to how many are actually taking place
Underreporting occurs for a number of reasons including feeling ashamed, not wanting to get the other person in trouble, avoidance and self-blame. But one of the major factors of underreporting is lack of awareness of the resources available.
Because of this, Kent State has been promoting different campaigns and spreading information on where student victims can go for confidential help and support that fits their needs.
Low number of reported sexual assaults
Director of Student Conduct Todd Kamenash said his office doesn’t see a lot of sexual assault cases as far as volume is concerned.
“Last year, I believe we had four or five cases that came through and went through the entire process,” he said. “The year before we had about that same number as well.“
Kamenash believes there are a number of reasons why a report never makes it to the Office of Student Conduct.
“First of all, I think clearly there’s underreporting,” he said. “I think awareness is one of the bigger concerns. If students aren’t aware that they can use this process that can hopefully help them in a healing way, then I think that disconnect is a challenge for us. Secondly, some people just aren’t ready and willing.”
He believes there is a lack of reporting for personal reasons as well as a lack of awareness in what the university’s process is. Jennie O’Connell, director of the Office of Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services (SRVSS) agreed that more students seek support services but don’t go through with any type of adjudication of the incident.
“Sometimes they just aren’t interested in doing that. They don’t want the other person to get in trouble, because upwards of 80 percent of sexual assaults occur by someone known to the person who was assaulted,” O’Connell said. “Sometimes it’s someone that they cared about or had a relationship with, even if it was just a friendship. They don’t want to see that person get in trouble; they just don’t want what happened to have happened. Other times they don’t because they’re just trying to move on. It affected them to the point they just want to put it behind them.”
Statistics have shown that anywhere between one and four or one and five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. O’Connell said it is hard to get an accurate count because of the low number of reports. She said anywhere from 20-25 percent typically experience attempted or completed sexual assault over the course of their academic career.
“Sexual assaults have been underreported for years, and we know that,” said Michquel Penn, community resource officer for Kent State Police, who works closely with the SRVSS office and SART, the Sexual Assault Response Team.
When O’Connell does random surveys in classes, she asks if students have ever been impacted by sexual assault.
“We usually end up with 40-50 percent within a class,” she said. “Now, is that because those students are self-selecting to learn more about it? It’s hard to say why, but the reality is that it does affect a lot of people. And so even if it isn’t one in four and it’s one in six, that’s still a lot of people. Sometimes I think getting hung up on numbers takes away from the fact that this is impacting people’s lives and for some people it impacts their lives for many years.”
Student help at Kent State
The SRVSS office is a place where students can go for support services. Members of SRVSS and SART help students start to make sense of what has happened to them, find out what their needs are and explain what options they have.
“The SRVSS office also does a lot of prevention like educational workshops to teach skills around what can you do to prevent power-based personal violence,” O’Connell said. “What can you do to make yourself safe as well as looking out for the community?”
The SART acts as first responders and is composed of people who provide the first support when somebody makes a report or notifies the university of a sexual assault.
“I think it’s important that they know where they can go for support and that we’re going to do everything we can to respect their privacy and follow their lead, as they’re ready,” O’Connell said. “A lot of times students aren’t ready right away to reach out for support. Sometimes the reporting doesn’t happen until months after an incident. So they need to know we’ll be here at any point.”
Violation of Code of Student Conduct
The Office of Student Conduct only receives a sexual assault report when the person has decided he or she wants to move forward with it. Kamenash said the case is processed like any other student violation case with a hearing panel that typically consists of two faculty or staff members and one student.
“It’s a higher-level issue, so it’s not going to result in something like a simple probation, warning or anything like that,” Kamenash said. “We ask the complainant, who is the person bringing forth the complaint, to appear as well as the respondent, who is the person or persons accused.”
An advisor of the student’s choice can accompany those who appear at the hearing. Kamenash said the hearing’s goal is to determine two things: First, is there a violation of the Code of Student Conduct? And secondly, what educational sanctions should apply?
The Office of Student Conduct works with the police department at times. Other times the only information known comes from the complainant and the respondent. There is not a difference in university disciplinary action if the police charge a respondent or not.
“The reason is because our judgment is all based on if someone has violated the Code of Student Conduct,” Kamenash said. “The definitions for what we call gender and sexual harassment are different in terminology than they are for outside courts.”
While the terms sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape are criminal in nature, he said they are based on criminal statues and local laws.
“Our definitions are what we have to utilize. So in Prohibited Conduct, which is our section of the Code of Student Conduct that explains all the different violations a student can violate, we call it Gender/Sexual Harassment,” Kamenash said. “That’s consistent with university policy, so that’s what we base our decisions on. That’s why there’s no issue about double jeopardy because we’re never going to charge a student with a crime. We’re saying, you may have broken one of our rules, and if you did, this is how it affects our environment so this is how we think sanctioning you will assist with that. “
There are no automatic sanctions for someone who is found responsible for sexual assault; it’s a case-by-case basis.
“If there’s a situation in where we feel as though there’s a harm to self or safety, regardless of whether it’s sexual misconduct or not, we’re going to separate the person from campus because that’s the right thing to do,” Kamenash said. “But in these tense situations, we have to make those calls as best as we can with all the information that we have. A snap judgment call can often be really tricky and unfair to the complainant and the respondent without the details.”
Effects on students involved
Going through the Student Conduct process can be extremely challenging for all of the students involved. Kamenash said it can be a very stressful time and for that reason, they do their best to stay transparent in understanding the university’s policies.
“I can’t guarantee comfort of somebody in this process. I’m not sure that there’s a way we can make it comfortable,” Kamenash said. “What I can do is make sure we’re providing the best opportunity for their success so that they can share their side of the situation and we have a way to understand their perspective. That helps us give the context so we know if we’re really finding a person responsible for our rules or not.”
Kamenash said they’re not going to have all the tools necessary to make a good decision about sanctioning if there is a finding of responsibility but the context is unknown.
“This isn’t just something that you have happen to you, you recover from it in a few weeks and life goes on,” O’Connell said. “It’s something that can affect people for a long time. So regardless of what the numbers are, it’s something we need to work on and something that we need to change.”
We can help
Women aren’t the only ones being sexually assaulted; men are too, and Officer Penn said Kent State has even had same-sex assaults reported.
“For sexual assault to stop, there has to be a collective effort from us, students and other departments on campus,” Penn said.
Kamenash said the goal is to get the information on the table, but convincing a person who is in a vulnerable state that is not something they can do or want to try to do.
“We want them to lead us where they want to go. It just doesn’t always fit perfectly with a conduct hearing,” he said. “I’ll tell you right away, my goal is not to find students responsible and it’s not to elicit as many conduct violations as we can. It’s to run a fair process.”
Kamenash said he strongly believes that the SRVSS staff, if they’re being proactive and really getting the awareness out, is going to give more students the opportunity and the understanding to take whatever step they’re willing to take.
“Where I get concerned is if they choose not to go forward,” he added. “Who am I to challenge them deciding that? It’s their lives they have to live with, but we potentially have a person who is out there committing acts that are hurting them and could hurt other people. I’m certainly concerned about that but not so much that I’m willing to force somebody to do anything they’re unwilling to do. They’ve already had that situation. Us doing that, talk about double jeopardy—that’s real double jeopardy, and we can’t mess with someone’s life like that.”
O’Connell said the word is getting out about the resources available. As it gets out, students are getting more information and feeing like there’s a place where they can go for help.
“I don’t think incidents have gone up,” she said. “I think it’s that awareness and that there’s knowledge of options for students. More people are seeking support or are aware that there’s a place.”
Presentation Given by SART and Kent State University Police