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The hidden victims of campus sexual assault: Students with disabilities

2-12-2015 WASHINGTON DC:

WASHINGTON DC — It was months into her freshman year here at Gallaudet University before Melissa decided to try alcohol.

As the nation’s only liberal-arts institution specifically designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Gallaudet is undoubtedly unique. But when it comes to drinking, this small school is like so many other campuses across the country: Alcohol is near ubiquitous to the social scene.

One night in the fall of 2011, Melissa, whose name and some identifying features have been changed to protect her identity, decided she wanted to see what it felt like to be drunk. At a small gathering in a friend’s dorm room, she took one shot of vodka. The next thing Melissa knew, she says, her classmate John’s hands were all over her.

“He kept groping my genitals and rubbing himself against me, and I kept pushing him away, but he kept doing it over and over,” she remembers. Melissa felt violated and angry. (John — whose name and some identifying features have also been changed — declined to comment, except to say that the accusations against him were “overturned.”)

From the day they met, just a few months earlier, Melissa felt uncomfortable around John. She barely knew him, but he was already telling her about the classmates he wanted to sleep with, she says. She tried to shrug off his remarks, but it became more difficult as John began fixating on her.

“He would sneak up behind me, grab me, and ask, ‘Guess who?’” Melissa says.

John didn’t need to cover her eyes, because Melissa is blind. She never saw him coming.

According to Melissa, John often exploited her blindness. At times, he would wave his hands in front of her face, she says, or steal her cane. He’d give it back eventually, telling her he was just playing around, but Melissa was left feeling vulnerable and stranded.

He was “taking advantage of my disability,” Melissa says.


Over the last two years, American universities have come under intense, unprecedented scrutiny for how they handle sexual assault, stalking, and domestic or dating violence.

It’s an issue that has been elevated by the president’s bully pulpit and by the hundreds of students who have charged that their institutions violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. To date, at least 95 schools are under federal investigation on charges that they failed to address these issues adequately.

But under this unprecedented national spotlight, there has been virtually no public attention paid to how universities handle reports of sexual violence from the millions of students with disabilities around the country, who make up an estimated 11 percent of the U.S. undergraduate population.

Nationally, research has shown that individuals with disabilities experience sexual assault at significantly higher rates than the general population and that they also face critical gaps in services when they seek help for abuse. At the same time, experts say, schools have yet to adequately assess or address the issue on their campuses.

As a renowned university with a significant population of students with disabilities, Gallaudet offers a rare portrait of the challenges students with disabilities can face when it comes to sexual assault and what happens when they report it.

Al Jazeera America’s six-month investigation into sexual violence at Gallaudet — which included interviews with a dozen current or former students who say they were sexually assaulted, senior Gallaudet administrators, Title IX and disability experts, and an analysis of the university’s judicial board actions — reveals that even a school explicitly designed for students with disabilities can struggle in dealing with sexual assault.

More specifically, it uncovers troubling allegations from students who said their disabilities made them targets for sexual assault; that their experiences reporting that abuse were complicated by factors like disability, race and sexual identity; and that in some cases, sexual assault was even the cause of a disability, such as depression. Their stories, experts say, offer a window into the dire need for all universities to do a better job of tackling sexual assault among students with disabilities, and into the possible legal ramifications of their inaction.

Over the next year, John’s behavior continued, but because he and Melissa were a part of the same small academic program, avoiding him wasn’t an option. And by then, Melissa says, she wasn’t his only target. He was bullying other students with disabilities, too. So in August 2012, she reported John’s actions to the Office of Student Conduct, which suggested she also contact the university’s Title IX coordinator, Sharrell McCaskill, because of the sexual nature of her complaint.

Every university that receives federal funding is required to designate a Title IX coordinator, whose responsibilities include promptly investigating or overseeing the investigation into complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking and domestic or dating violence.

That month, Melissa sent McCaskill an email describing John’s behavior, including the sexual comments, and asked if McCaskill would be available to meet with her in person the next day. For more than two months, it went unanswered. Then in early November, came a short reply.

“I apologize that I may have overlooked your email,” McCaskill’s response read. “The matter that you are referring to has been brought to my attention.”

By that time, Melissa says, John’s behavior had escalated: He was bullying her at every opportunity — in class and on Facebook — and messaging her as late as 1 a.m., asking to come over to her place.

When McCaskill met with her, Melissa says, she described the abuse, while insisting that her anonymity be maintained.

“I was very clear,” she says. “I even asked to leave out blind-related details because it would be obvious [to John] that it was me.”

John was popular in their program, and she feared his friends would retaliate against her. Meanwhile, at least one other student reported John for assault or harassment, and McCaskill met with John to talk about that case. What happened next is disputed.

Melissa says she later found out — from a friend and via a text from John himself — that McCaskill had mentioned her name during the meeting with John. Frustrated and angry, she sent McCaskill an email alleging a violation of her confidentiality and criticizing the two-month delay, and copied several senior university officials. In a subsequent message, she attached a screenshot of John’s text message.

Citing confidentiality obligations, Gallaudet declined to comment about any individual claims involving students, and McCaskill did not respond to requests for comment. But in an email to Melissa, McCaskill denied the charge, writing that she only asked John “a general question,” and later said, according to Melissa, that she had made a vague reference to a student with different demographic characteristics than Melissa.

In the end, Melissa says, “Nothing happened. No one cared.” The experience left her distrustful of the system, doubly violated and more vulnerable, so she emailed McCaskill to say that she would not pursue an official report.

That year, Gallaudet University received 18 reports of what are known as “forcible sex offenses,” according to crime statistics required by the federal Clery Act. These can include forcible rape, forcible sodomy, forcible fondling and sexual assault with an object. (Nonforcible sex offenses refer to cases of incest and statutory rape in which consent was given.) And Gallaudet’s forcible sex offenses rate — more than 11 per 1,000 students, according to a “Washington Post” analysis — was the highest per capita of any federally funded university with more than 1,000 students in 2012.

Target for abuse

Sprawled across 99 acres of northeastern Washington, D.C, Gallaudet University is one of the country’s most influential hubs of deaf education and culture. Dating back more than a century, to when former Postmaster General Amos Kendall donated land from his own estate to educate 12 deaf and six blind students, the university has matriculated more than 24,000 students to date, with the support of substantial federal funding.

In a world where hearing is the norm, this small campus is a refuge for the some 1,700 students who attend it each year. As one of them put it, “I think of Gallaudet as the embassy for deaf and hard of hearing people … It helps prepare us to go back out to the hearing world.”

It’s a role the institution holds sacred. Gallaudet prides itself on being one of very few places that offers deaf and hard-of-hearing students the services they need, citing its caring community and respect for diversity in recruitment materials. In fact, a supportive environment is the main reason, the school says, that its students reported forcible sex offenses at a higher rate than any other federally funded university in 2012.

“It all comes down to a simple basic fact of communication access,” says Gallaudet’s dean of student affairs, Dwight Benedict. “We also provide the most access [deaf and hard-of-hearing] students can get anywhere.” As evidence, he points to the school’s vast network of interpreters, staff and faculty fluent in American Sign Language, or ASL, and immersed in deaf culture.

Melissa says those were some of the factors that drew her to Gallaudet, which she hoped would accommodate students with disabilities like her and help her to one day serve the deaf-blind community. “I noticed from my experiences that deaf/blind people fall through the cracks. People are trained in deafness, or blindness, but not both,” she explains.

When she first arrived on campus, Melissa was startled by just how much more prepared the university was in dealing with blind students than any of the other schools she’d attended. At other schools, it could take months for Melissa to get a textbook converted to a blind-accessible format. At Gallaudet, it was just weeks. She also noticed that one of the dorms had vibrating doorbells students could feel, instead of the flashing lights typically used by deaf students.

But Melissa says, she found that her disability made her a target for abuse and repeatedly resulted in unequal treatment when she tried to report it. ..Continued.. by Azmat Khan

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