Colleges and universities across the U.S. are on an academic high right now. Televisions, newsmagazines, and newspapers are filled with prominent speeches from high-ranking commencement speakers coupled with glowing faces of young graduates who are convinced they will be the ones to change the world. But behind the gowns, under the caps, and beyond the quad, there is a crisis on dozens of American campuses – sexual assault and how to combat it.
Earlier this month, the White House released the names of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for their handling of sexual assault complaints. Some of the schools are globally known – Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Southern California – but others are smaller, with a more confined student body. While surviving victims applaud the move, they are now beginning a push for a more publicized way to alert the public, namely prospective college students, to the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses.
Jessica Skolnik was an 18-year-old freshman at Wisconsin’s Beloit College in 1997. One night, she left campus with some friends and woke up the next morning while being raped. The man who was raping her was someone she thought was a friend.
Skolinik’s experience is not unique. Research shows one in five women is the victim of a sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault during their time in college. The initiative by the Obama administration is aimed at overhauling the way schools handle sexual assault cases. Many victims consider current protocol to be inadequate because of a lack of across-the-board standards. The new government task force is recommending colleges provide better confidentiality to those who report sex crimes, as well conducting a standardized, anonymous survey on campus assaults.
Following her attack, Skolnik did not tell anyone about the rape. Like so many victims, she tried to erase the memory of what happened – she went to class, studied, read. She didn’t approach any campus officials until five weeks after the incident, when she found out she was pregnant.
“Finding out I was pregnant was the last straw,” Skolnik told msnbc Thursday. “Reporting my attack then triggered an investigation and meetings with a counselor.”
Skolnik met with a school counselor, who suggested mediation as a form of recovery. No one suggested she go to the police, and she was not told mediation would include her attacker.
“[The counselor] wanted me to sit in a room with [my rapist] and talk it out,” Skolnik said. “This wasn’t something that could be talked out. It was a total shock to my system. I just wanted it to go away. It was so traumatizing.”
After one mediation session, face to face with her attacker, Skolnik ended the school’s investigation into her rape. She never went to the police because she had already been. She was first sexually assaulted as a middle schooler. Law enforcement was no help then, she said, and didn’t expect them to be receptive to an 18-year-old college freshman who waited weeks to report a rape that allegedly occurred while partying with two friends.
“I kind of knew what was going to happen,” Skolnik said. “I knew I really didn’t have a chance.”
After her rape and ordeal with school leaders, Skolnik left Beloit College and transferred to a college in Baltimore. She miscarried before having a chance to follow through on plans to terminate her pregnancy. In Baltimore, she started an on-campus support group for survivors of sexual assault.
“The Internet made it a lot easier to organize a group of survivors,” Skolnik said. “There is a kind of safety in some ways to bring them into that space where they don’t feel as vulnerable.”
Skolnik and other victims are now making an effort to educate prospective students on how colleges handle sexual assault reports. More than 200 victims have now signed-on to a letter calling on the Princeton Review, the test prep and college admissions service, to make a change in the way it ranks colleges and universities. More than 35,000 members of the group UltraViolet signed a similar petition last week. Survivors want Princeton Review to start offering a rank of colleges based on how many sexual assaults are reported each year.
Beloit College, where Skolnik was raped, did not keep any record of her attack to her knowledge, but the school did respond to an msnbc inquiry, writing “We take reports of sexual assault very seriously. It is our commitment and duty to enforce these policies, as well as to educate our community about them, our non-intoxicated, verbal, mutually understood ‘Yes’ standard, personal safety best practices, and the resources and reporting options available to victims.”
The Princeton Review did not respond directly to questions on whether it would consider adding some type of sexual assault list to its rankings. The publication did issue a statement Thursday to msnbc reading in part, “The campus safety information appears on The Princeton Review's web profiles of more than 1,200 undergraduate colleges and is freely available. On the college profiles, the Company has added a ‘Campus Safety’ section within the ‘Campus Life/Facilities’ area of the school write-ups. From that section, users can click on urls that link directly to each school's website campus safety information page.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is considering a bill targeting the campus sexual assault crisis. In the past, Sen. McCaskill has suggested a variety of ways to punish schools that inadequately address sexual assaults – including hitting them where it hurts: the bank.
Many federal laws govern the handling and reporting of sexual assault, including the Clery Act and Title IX. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that receive federal funds to keep and disclose information on crime – whether it be on-campus or nearby. Current maximum fines for violating the Clery Act are $35,000, which at many schools can amount to just a single student's yearly tuition.
“Sexual assault is an under-reported crime for which the available data is often inaccurate, and cannot be meaningfully compared from school to school,” Sen. McCaskill said in a statement to msnbc Thursday. “One of the most critical elements in this fight is making sure we have accurate, uniform data to allow students and parents to make informed choices when considering whether or not a school is safe. Until we reform this process and change the incentive structure for colleges and universities, we continue to have a complex labyrinth of statutes and statistics, and confusion about how and when to report — making it virtually impossible to know if a school’s numbers are accurate.”
For Skolnik, she is pushing for reform so other rape survivors don’t have to go through what she went through.
“I want schools to make sure to tell survivors they’re not alone,” Skolnik said. “We need a campaign really focused on a space that puts the survivors first, not the school.”
For more on Jessica Skolnik's story, catch her interview with Craig Melvin on msnbc on Sunday, May 25th, at 3pmET.