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Monday, June 05, 2023
Laura Dunn

Laura Dunn spoke at a press conference Feb. 26 held by U.S. Rep. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to convince Congress to pass Campus SaVE.

Victim into Advocate: One sexual assault survivor’s fight for justice

This is the second story in a two-part series spotlighting sexual assault survivor Laura Dunn, a 2007 University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, who became a primary advocate for the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law March 7 under the Violence Against Women Act.

Laura Dunn was working for Teach For America in New Orleans when she received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education. She immediately skipped to the last page, and what she read left her devastated.

She read the conclusion of the Title IX complaint she filed against University of Wisconsin-Madison after she felt officials did not conduct a “prompt and appropriate” investigation into her sexual assault that occurred April 4, 2004. The DOE’s Office for Civil Rights concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to rule UW-Madison guilty.

“I was in the next phase of my life,” Dunn said. “And it was just another door slammed.”

UW-Madison exonerated Dunn’s perpetrator due to a lack of “clear and convincing” evidence, which Associate Dean of Students Kevin Helmkamp said was partially because Dunn reported her assault 15 months after it occurred. This was the standard for evidence for indicating sexual assault until 2011, when Helmkamp said the standard in sexual assault cases changed to preponderance—meaning a claimant must show a greater weight of evidence toward his or her claim than against it.

“Once we reach that evidentiary standard, it would be one-year suspension, at the minimum,” Helmkamp said. He added that setting standards for evidence is necessary due to the severity of the consequence one may face after perpetrating sexual assault, which often results in a two-year suspension or expulsion.

Dunn’s luck changed after the Center for Public Integrity spotlighted her in an investigation about Title IX complaints regarding the way universities handle sexual assault cases. Soon after the report was released, the DOE released the “Dear Colleague” Letter, which clearly defines how universities should handle sexual assault incidents and investigations. Dunn said there was a direct correlation.

“The Title IX rewrite is very strong,” Dunn said. “It really calls out universities’ practices that discourage or delay campus victims’ justice.”

But Dunn, still dissatisfied, took her fight for justice to Washington.

Taking the fight to Washington

In August 2011, Dunn flew to Washington D.C. to begin law school at the University of Maryland, located in Baltimore. Before she even settled in her new residence, Dunn visited the U.S. Senate offices along with representatives from various sexual assault prevention advocacy organizations to change the way universities handle sexual assault cases.

After nearly two years, the efforts resulted in the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act.

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When Campus SaVE was introduced as Section 304 under the then-proposed Violence Against Women Act, Dunn said she thought her work was complete, noting how the issue of sexual assault typically has a history of unanimous bipartisan support. But to her disappointment, the bill expired when Congress’s last session ended Jan. 3, 2013 after a legislative stalemate.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., quickly reintroduced Campus SaVE to Congress when the session started up again, and the U.S. Senate passed the bill shortly after.

Dunn spoke at a Feb. 26 press conference held by U.S. Rep. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to push the House of Representatives to reauthorize VAWA. Listening to Dunn speak, one could sense the anger and frustration—even the hurt—in her shaken voice.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Dunn said at the press conference, according to footage. “The Senate realized this and took bipartisan efforts to pass this legislation, which is about justice, not politics.”

Two days later, Congress passed VAWA, and with it, Campus SaVE. Dunn was there when President Barack Obama signed VAWA into law March 7.

Campus SaVE detailed

Dunn said Campus SaVE, which will take effect in the 2014-15 academic year, will make the sexual assault investigative process more “even-handed” by requiring universities to provide information about the investigation to both parties involved at the same time. It also creates a new process for victims to be given the same appealing rights as their perpetrators.

After UW-Madison’s investigation concluded, Dunn said the university exonerated her perpetrator before telling her of the investigation’s outcome, which made it impossible for her to appeal the university’s findings. Campus SaVE prevents such actions from happening.

“This is the ideal. That there are standards that law protects the accused and gives them a fair process and really make sure victims have an opportunity for justice,” Dunn said. “That’s the lasting effect.”

The new bill also requires universities to provide victims with their written rights, which include university assistance in reporting a crime, changing “hostile” living environments as well as offering counseling and health services.

According to Assistant Dean of Students Tonya Schmidt, UW-Madison already follows most of the Campus SaVE policies. One policy the bill will change is that now, instead of delivering options and investigation details orally, officials will have to do so in writing.

Campus SaVE also instructs universities to provide sexual assault prevention education for all incoming students and employees, including safe and positive bystander intervention techniques.

UW-Madison educates all incoming students at Student Orientation and Registration, where first-year students spend an evening with student leaders discussing the definition of sexual assault and consent, as well as available resources on campus.

“The Title IX guide and Campus SaVE—that’s my form of justice,” Dunn said. “Now I hope to turn around and start giving justice to others.”

Not the answer, but a ‘very important first step’

On Oct. 17, 2012, former Amherst College student Angie Epifano published an opinion piece in the college’s student newspaper, The Amherst Student, detailing her acquaintance rape on Amherst’s campus.

The column also detailed the neglect she felt working with university officials after she reported her rape, as well as detailed her decision to leave Amherst, while her rapist graduated with honors, even after she reported him.

The article gained national attention and generated thousands of comments. One day later on Oct. 18, Amherst President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin—the former UW-Madison chancellor—released a response letter. She stated, “The administration’s responses to reports have left survivors feeling that they were badly served. That must change, and change immediately.”

Soon after, Amherst held panelled discussions, community meetings and days of silence. And in January 2013, the newly established Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct released a report called “Toward a Culture of Respect: The Problem of Sexual Misconduct at Amherst College,” which details the administration’s new, stricter approach in handling sexual assault cases.

“They did everything to expose the culture of sexual violence,” Dunn said. “And that’s I what wish the university had done in my case and it’s what I still hope the university does.”

Dunn said there could still be more done to expose and combat rape-supportive culture and hopes universities will eventually “fully accept” there is a cultural ignorance surrounding sexual assault and firmly address issues surrounding rape-supportive culture to the level Amherst College did in October 2012.

“I think universities need to accept that this is a problem, rather than thinking it is something that comes up only every once in a blue moon,” Dunn said. “They need a culture that supports victims while they are on campus.”

While Campus SaVE addresses issues surrounding the victim’s protection and enforces some sexual assault prevention education, Dunn said the legislation is only the beginning of combatting the larger culture surrounding campus sexual assault.

“I don’t think Campus SaVE is the answer to the problem,” Dunn said. “But it is a very important first step.”

Even with Campus SaVE implemented, Schmidt admitted UW-Madison still has room to grow. She said the Dean of Students Office is “not exactly being proactive” about advertising its services and encouraging victims to report.

“I always tell people we need a marketer,” Schmidt said. “Because we are really busy responding to incidents.”

Dunn said she thinks when universities recognize problems surrounding rape-supportive culture, “it just changes everything.”

“It diminishes the silence, allows improved policies, it allows those who feel as though they have been victimized to feel like they have a place still at the university,” Dunn said. “That they can stay, and the university is paying attention now.”

Dunn is now a law student at the University of Maryland and a legal intern for the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Legal Justice.

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