Morgan State University is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for its handling of a 2014 sexual assault. The investigation comes after a Morgan student reported to campus officials on March 20, 2014 that someone had sexually assaulted her. Three months later, on June 26, she filed a complaint about the university’s handling of her case with OCR.
OCR investigators came to Morgan on Feb. 9 and 10 this year to review university policies and practices related to Title IX. The investigators held focus groups for students, faculty, and staff to discuss issues related to sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus.
The incident that sparked the complaint took place in off-campus student housing and the alleged assailant was reportedly another Morgan student and an acquiantance of the victim. Other details haven’t been released, but the case has brought new attention to the reality of sexual assault at Morgan State, which reported only five sex offenses between 2011 and 2013.
Sexual assaults in general are underreported. According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Justice study, 80 percent of female college students who are raped never report the crime. And it’s a myth that a school with few reported sexual assaults indicates that it is a safer school, according to Samantha Koch, who until recently was the director of Strategic Initiatives at the Clery Center for Security on Campus.
“For sexual assault, those higher [numbers] are probably an indication it’s a safer school,” she says. It means they are “offering resources and better about paying attention” to the issue.
Many Morgan students complain they wouldn’t even know how or where to report a sexual assault if it occurred. Many assume that the counseling center or the police department are the only places to report sexual assault. While those are options, there are other internal processes for students who may be reluctant to go straight to the police department to file a criminal complaint.
Information on the process—or even who to report a complaint to—isn’t easily accessible or clearly presented to students. Different administrators handle different reports—even for seemingly similar offenses. For example, Tanyka Barber, director of diversity and equal employment opportunity and the Title IX coordinator for the school, primarily handles cases between faculty members or between faculty members and students. Seymour Chambers, the head of student affairs and chief judicial officer, handles complaints from students who report that another student sexually assaulted them. And Chambers admits to being “slightly uncomfortable” hearing the intimate details of a sexual assault when he started the job.
Students who report a sexual assault to other administrators or faculty members may or may not have “officially” reported the rape. (Faculty members told Title IX investigators who visited the campus in February that they were unsure what their reporting obligations were if a student told them about a sexual assault.)
Morgan’s literature on sexual assault is a maze of copied and pasted documents with sources from the 1990s and different directives on what to do when you’re sexually assaulted, depending on what search term you use. For example, you get different information if you search “rape” than you get if you search “sexual assault.”
The school worked to share information with students on sexual assault this April as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month via a series of films, discussions, and panels. But many of the forums devolved into debates about what women wear and whether “sexy” clothes invite rape (see “Why are black women less likely to report rape?,” page 14).
Barber says that she’s working on improving the university’s response to sexual assaults. “We need to improve how we work with complainants through the process,” she says. “Particularly if someone has a complaint during non-office hours. We don’t have someone who can respond after hours, on call 24 hours a day.” The administrators tasked with fielding calls about sexual assault are currently only in the office between 8 a.m and 5 p.m. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2014 National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1995 and 2013, 65 percent of rape and sexual assault victimization against females ages 18 to 24 occurred at night.
“How do we break down reporting barriers to make reporting easier?” asks Adrian Wiggins, the executive director of the Office of Campus and Public Safety. “That’s essentially what we need to do in the black community. We have to make it easier for people to tell their stories. I think Morgan generally puts forth effort to bridge gaps and improve reporting—to make it easier.”
Barber is also working on clarifying the university’s current policy. “We are in the process of drafting a new sexual assault misconduct policy,” she says. “It will be very detailed regarding steps you can take and resources available on and off campus.”
Although the university remains under scrutiny by the OCR and Morgan officials acknowledge the number of reported sexual assaults has increased in the last year, the school refuses to share current numbers with students or the press. By law, universities receiving public funds must report all sexual assaults. But they don’t have to publish the data until October of the following year, so the school isn’t required to report 2014 numbers until the fall of this year.
University officials are required to collect both sexual assaults that are reported to the administration and sexual assaults that are reported to campus or local police for an annual Campus Security and Fire Safety Report, required by a federal law called the Clery Act.
In addition to the annual security report, the Clery Act requires schools that receive federal money to issue a “timely warning” when crimes happen on campus.
But students at Morgan received no warning on the heels of the 2014 sexual assault complaint that resulted in the federal Title IX complaint.
There are three exceptions to issuing a timely warning: time of crime (is it timely to report it? Some sexual assault survivors wait days or even weeks to report their attack); location of the crime; and likelihood that reporting it will aid in the prevention of future crimes. “Schools are supposed to look at every case, but there is flexibility for campuses to decide how to notify students under the Clery Act,” Koch says. “If no timely warning is issued, then documentation must be made explaining why no warning was issued.”
A timely alert wasn’t issued for the March 2014 case, according to university officials, because the alleged assailant knew the victim and was not considered an active threat to others on campus. Barber adds that the sensitivity of the report played a role in the decision not to notify students.
Asha Glover is a recent Morgan State University graduate. She worked on this piece as part of her Senior Capstone project under the direction of professor Karen Houppert.