HBO’s ‘VICE’ Takes on Campus Rape: Will Public Shaming Force Schools to Take the Epidemic Seriously?

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Campus rape is shaping up to be the one of the biggest culture war flash points of 2015. A varied group of young activists, politicians, and a performance artist are advocating on the side of survivors — while a group of naysayers ranging from media skeptics to misogynist trolls on claim the “epidemic” of campus rape is widely overblown.

Enter HBO’s VICE and correspondent, Gianna Toboni, who decided to find out “why so many students feel that they’re not being kept safe” on American campuses, in a segment which airs tomorrow night. The series, which is typically either praised for the boldness or ridiculed for the foolishness of its forays into international danger zones, isn’t typically associated with American campuses. But, as Toboni told me on the phone, “at the start of every season, we look at what the biggest issues in the world are. And for us, safety on American campuses was on the top of the list.”

The short but powerful segment, “Campus Cover Up,” covers some of the same themes as the recent documentary The Hunting Ground, but with less of a focus on individual cases and more of an attempt to show how unhappy students are on campus after campus, including Columbia University and the University of Michigan. We see protests, tears, and even go undercover, VICE style, into a university’s disciplinary hearing, where we hear such inane-seeming questions as, “Did you, umm, feel pressured?” from officials.

That insight into ineptitude gels with what Toboni says she wants to see happen, as part of a bill that Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill are pushing forward: a mandatory campus climate survey. Such a survey would force institutions to ask their students about systemic responses to assault cases and post those statistics on their websites. “It’s a direct incentive for colleges to clean up their act,” said Toboni. And for schools who consistently mishandle cases, the survey could act as “public shaming.” Like The Hunting Ground, this VICE segment talks about institutional biases, particularly surrounding athletics, which affect schools’ bottom lines and prevent them from taking a harder stance against alleged offenders. (Excerpts from the senators’ interviews are below.)

Other things schools can get better at in the short term, according to Toboni, include “having the panelists in the adjudication hearings properly trained” and helping students quickly and painlessly arrange their campus life so they don’t have to be in contact with their assailants, either in dorms or in classes.

In nearly every comment section on stories about campus rape, a common opinion is: This is a crime, leave it to the cops. Toboni was curious about why schools adjudicate these cases instead of cops, but after speaking with survivors and advocates she realized how important it was for schools to have some kind of internal process. “This was the big question I had: Why are schools handling it, and should they be?” she told me. “After finishing, I realized that to get one of these cases prosecuted could take years. Meanwhile there’s a student on campus who wants to finish her education.”

The problem with many campus rape cases is how hard they are to conclusively verify by impartial means, whether it’s via a journalist, a jury, or a school. There’s a level of subjectivity because of the trauma involved, as well as what’s often conflicting testimony between two students. Recently, high-profile campus rape cases at Columbia and Harvard have been targeted by the media, but Toboni urges journalists to be unafraid to cover the issue regardless.

“I think reporters shouldn’t be afraid to take on this issue. Just look at what the senators are doing,” she says. “Yes, expect the trolls to come out online. Expect people to scrutinize your story. But it’s such an important story. The media will have failed if we don’t pay attention.” She urges reporters to look more broadly at schools’ flawed disciplinary processes rather than excessively focusing on individual cases that have emotional appeal. In other words: policy first. “We’re seeing people scrutinizing cases, but the media should be focusing more on how schools are handling these cases,” she says.

VICE airs on HBO on Friday at 11pm EST.