HBCUs face even more complicated issues when dealing with campus sexual violence than the average higher education institution
As at any other college or university, sexual violence is also pervasive on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). However, unlike at other institutions, for HBCUs, this problem is compounded by barriers that are unique to survivors of color and to survivors on predominantly black campuses. The experience of non-white survivors is rarely talked about, and The media rarely covers the experiences of non-white survivors in general, and in talking about the issue of campus sexual assault at large, it neglects to draw attention to these issues at HBCUs along with the many hardships that student survivors of color face as a result.
Most studies of sexual violence on college campuses leave out students from HBCUs from the studied sample. There are even fewer studies focused specifically on sexual violence at HBCUs as a unique population. According to a study from the National Institute of Justice (NJI), this lack of research has resulted in “a substantial gap in the literature and knowledge base about the magnitude of the problem, what is being done to reduce the problem, and what more can be done to prevent sexual violence and meet the needs of victims of sexual assault on HBCU campuses.”
Lack of reporting is just as much of an issue on HBCU campuses as it is on other college campuses. Based on a 2003 Department of Justice study on reporting crime to police, for every one black woman who reports her rape, at least fifteen other black women do not report theirs. Meanwhile, only seven percent of women on HBCU campuses reported their assaults to the police, compared to twenty percent of women at colleges in general, according to the aforementioned study by NJI. The same study revealed that fourteen percent of rape survivors at HBCUs who were physically forced or threatened with the use of physical force and seven percent of those who were too incapacitated to consent said they did not believe the police would think the incident was “serious enough.” The report also found that nearly twenty percent of rape survivors at HBCUs who were physically forced and fifteen percent of those who were incapacitated said they did not report the crime because they did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble.
However, the motivation for not reporting to police may be different. According to the Washington Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs, a variety of other factors prevent many survivors of color, both on- and off-campus, from reporting the violence they experience, including “inequalities, from historical to contemporary racial discrimination, and other variables [that] contribute to a distrust of formal systems in spite [of] the need for assistance.” One such variable is the long history of police mistreatment of black individuals and over-policing of black communities. Black women also face numerous racial stereotypes, including the widespread belief that they are sexually promiscuous and therefore “always consenting” and incapable of being assaulted. Harmful stereotypes like this and the multiple levels of oppression that black women face have led to a widespread belief that any reports of sexual violence will be minimized, ignored, or even used to worsen the situation.
The first major news coverage of sexual violence on HBCU campuses in recent history came in 1996 when a student from Spelman College, a women’s HBCU, reported being gang-raped by four students from Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU. While this sparked discussion at Morehouse about sexual violence, widespread support for the accused men greatly overshadowed any productive conversations. The administration refused to support the survivor and instead announced in a handout that it was considering providing a defense fund for the four men, while the dean of the campus chapel at the time engaged in victim-blaming rhetoric.
A decade later, in 2006, two students from Spelman individually reported that they had been raped by students from Morehouse. In response to these allegations, Spelman students organized a walkout, march, and protests. The Student Government Association at Morehouse issued a statement, denouncing the protests and demanding an apology from the Spelman students who participated for “disturbing their intellectual atmosphere.”
The most recent stream of news coverage about the issue of sexual violence at HBCUs largely began in the spring semester of 2013 when one Spelman student accused three members of the Morehouse basketball team of gang rape, while a separate Spelman student accused a Morehouse football player of raping her. The response from those within the AUC and beyond was “‘very hostile, very violent,’” and with the increasing widespread usage of social media, people “quickly took to Twitter to air their opinions, with many rushing to defend the men.”
In 2015, the Department of Education announced investigations into both Morehouse and Spelman for potential Title IX violations. Following this, Morehouse announced in 2016 that the school was overhauling its sexual assault policy and Title IX enforcement program.
These recent news stories provide only a rudimentary look into the problems, both institutionally and culturally, that HBCUs and their students face when dealing with campus sexual violence. According to Inside Higher Ed, activists and experts say that HBCUs “have notoriously been slow to respond to sexual misconduct” and thereby failed survivors of color. While a lack of funding and other resources presents challenges to many higher-education institutions when trying to address sexual and relationship violence on their campuses, these problems tend to affect HBCUs the most. Over the past few decades, HBCUs have faced “unequal government funding, declining enrollment, and poor leadership,” according to Peter Jacobs of Business Insider. This crisis results in insufficient resources for various needs, including the investigation of sexual assault reports and addressing the issue of campus sexual violence overall.
Resource shortages also affect HBCUs’ required Title IX offices. Lack of personnel in these offices tends to result in prolonged, inefficient investigations that diminish students’ trust in their institutions. Additionally, Title IX staff frequently lack training that could make investigations faster, fairer, and less frustrating for all involved. According to Dr. Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University School of Law, “victims services” centers or units are “unheard of” in HBCU spaces. Even when these spaces are available on campus, lack of funding can lessen effectiveness “as staff often performs multiple roles and responsibilities.” Without adequate staffing for these resources, HBCUs cannot sufficiently address campus sexual violence school-wide or in a one-on-one setting with student survivors.
Survivors of color, especially black women, “encounter campus sexual assault from a perspective based on the many unique obstacles they face.” One of the greatest challenges stems from the expectation that members of the black community must always protect each other from issues such as rampant racism, mass incarceration, and the expectation that the students at HBCUs represent the best of the best in the black community, which makes them even more worthy of protection. These expectations, as well as the “culture of unity and belonging at HBCUs can make it hard for students to report experiences of sexual misconduct at their schools.” According to Kirsten West Savali, a Clark alumna, “Wherever there is masculinity, privilege and power—and a perceived responsibility to protect all three—there will be rape.” The sense of unity and family on HBCU campuses also makes reporting especially difficult.
In order to properly and effectively address sexual violence on HBCU campuses, there first needs to be additional research, both involving and focused solely on students at HBCUs. It is nearly impossible to correct a problem if the pertinent facts related to the problem are not fully known. Once there is a better understanding about the details of this issue, administrators at HBCUs can better formulate a plan for addressing it so that students feel more comfortable reporting their experiences to administrators. Survivors of color also face an understandable distrust of law enforcement based on their historical treatment, which means that Title IX offices, campus police, and local police must go above and beyond to build students’ trust and faith in these institutions. Finally, the media must publish stories about sexual violence at HBCUs. Bringing more attention to the issue of sexual violence on HBCUs and the unique challenges black survivors face is crucial to acknowledging systemic oppression and its effect on the reporting and handling of sexual violence on campuses. Survivors of color have every right to feel safe on campuses, which is why the unique challenges faced by survivors of sexual violence at HBCUs must become an important topic of discussion and not left behind in the #metoo conversation.
SurvJustice is committed to making the anti-sexual violence movement a safe and intersectional space which is inclusive of those who have been historically marginalized and aware of ongoing systemic dynamics of privilege and power. We encourage survivors of color to consider getting involved or applying for one of our organizational positions.
In the 1980s, University of Denver professors Penelope Canan and George W. Pring coined the acronym “SLAPP,” which stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” They did so after identifying a trend of vindictive lawsuits brought to “intimidate and silence opponents or critics who had spoken out in the public sphere,” according to the Media Law Resource Center. While the specific SLAPPs that Canan and Pring studied mostly dealt with land use and development issues, these lawsuits can be filed regarding a variety of issues, ranging from food disparagement and real estate to police officer conduct and online speech. Those accused of sexual violence can also file SLAPPs against their victims and the institutions that may have investigated them for violations of school policy.
Defamation is the most common basis for a SLAPP lawsuit, but regardless of the issue, the common denominator in all SLAPP lawsuits is their purpose. Most plaintiffs in SLAPP cases do not aim to seek justice or even win in court. Instead, the primary goal is to intimidate, silence, and harass the defendants by forcing them to deplete their financial and emotional resources by dragging them through a court battle potentially lasting several years.
A defense against these types of harmful lawsuits comes in the form of anti-SLAPP laws. According to Forbes contributor Jay Adkisson, in general, these laws provide for a “special motion that a defendant can bring if the plaintiff’s lawsuit involves the defendant’s protected speech or conduct, usually meaning Constitutionally-protected speech or conduct.” Ideally, this motion provides the defendant with the opportunity to get the SLAPP suit thrown out quickly on the basis of frivolousness, thus avoiding the need to spend large amounts of time and money on a defense. However, the most significant downfall of any anti-SLAPP law is that it cannot prevent frivolous lawsuits from going to court in the first place—it only offers a defense after the case enters the court system.
SLAPP lawsuits became so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s that some states adopted anti-SLAPP laws in order to protect citizens’ freedom of speech. Washington state passed the first such law in the United States in 1989. Today, twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have some form of an anti-SLAPP statute in place. These laws differ significantly among jurisdictions in both wording and scope. Despite the variations, most states’ anti-SLAPP statutes are written in terms of “protected speech or conduct” and “provide only for attorney’s fees against the plaintiff as the penalty for bringing an improper action,” according to Adkisson. Some states, including Kansas and Michigan, have unsuccessfully attempted to introduce legislation for anti-SLAPP laws over the years. Despite the most recent attempt introduced by Congress to establish federal anti-SLAPP legislation in 2015, there is currently no federal anti-SLAPP law.
In the twenty-two states without anti-SLAPP statutes, defendants often face significant costs and hardship with few to no opportunities for redress. While they have the option to file a motion to dismiss, this rarely succeeds in stopping SLAPP suits. Even when a court grants a defendant’s motion to dismiss, the discovery process could have already forced the defendant to endure substantial expenses and harassment.
While the focus on eliminating sexual harassment and sexual violence on campuses has increased in recent years, there has also been an increase in the amount of litigation that accused students file against higher education institutions and accusers. According to a 2015 study by United Educators, students accused of or found responsible for sexual misconduct bring approximately sixty percent of lawsuits related to Title IX. The same study reported that seventy-two percent of accused or responsible students who file a Title IX-related lawsuit against their university also sue their individual accuser for defamation. Courts granted approximately twenty percent of requests from accused students who sought a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to stop the school’s adjudication process or enforcement of sanctions. While the rate of ultimate success accused students have with these lawsuits is currently unknown, filing a SLAPP seems to be a misguided way for them to repair their reputation. When accused students file lawsuits against their accusers, they typically assert that the accuser made defamatory statements throughout the Title IX investigation.
While these types of lawsuits are nothing new to the Title IX process, activists, administrators, and lawyers have observed a sharp increase in the number of defamation-based SLAPP suits. Statements made in a Title IX investigation are not protected by law, unlike statements made in criminal proceedings in which witness testimony has absolute privilege and cannot be used as a basis for a civil claim of defamation. According to an article from JD Supra about the aforementioned study, Title IX investigations also “involve judgments and facts potentially harmful to a student’s reputation, and thus, to academic or employment prospects.” These factors combine to create the perfect storm to allow the accused in a Title IX case to become the accuser in a SLAPP lawsuit.
As SLAPP lawsuits have become a more common weapon for perpetrators to retaliate against survivors in both the Title IX setting and other sexual assault cases, the creation and strengthening of anti-SLAPP laws is more important than ever to protect survivors from frivolous defamation lawsuits and the resulting financial, emotional, and mental damage. SLAPP lawsuits filed against survivors have a chilling effect on reporting, which is already done at an extremely low rate. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, these suits “threaten public discourse and chill free speech by targeting those who speak out on matters of public importance,” including sexual misconduct. The use of these frivolous defamation lawsuits has already occurred in several high profile cases, including when former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston counter-sued his accuser in 2015, as well as when director Brett Ratner sued a woman who made claims on Facebook in 2017 that he raped her more than a decade earlier.
To prevent more lawsuits like these, and to protect survivors when they do occur, anti-SLAPP laws need to be utilized, strengthened, and created at the federal level. Federal protections against SLAPP lawsuits would safeguard survivors from SLAPPs even if their states did not have specific anti-SLAPP statutes. A law at the national level would also provide equal security across the board instead of the current varying levels of protection from state to state.
Authored by Natalie Fitts, Policy Intern
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