Dodging blame can be a shameless game.
Repeatedly, the University of Missouri has pushed its initial inaction in the alleged rape and then the suicide of Sasha Menu Courey off on the people suffering the most — Menu Courey and her grieving parents.
“MU was previously unable to go forward with an investigation because there was no complaint brought forward from the alleged victim or her parents, and there was otherwise insufficient information about the incident,” said the university’s statement.
Crucial points must be emphasized.
MU did not need the OK of Menu Courey to pursue an allegation of sexual assault.
Nor did the university need the go-ahead of Menu Courey’s parents to begin an investigation under Title IX.
What appears to have been lacking was a strong understanding of the university’s duty to protect all students — not just Menu Courey — from the possibility of a sexual predator operating within the campus community.
And that apparent shrugging off of university responsibility quickly became one of the most overlooked aspects of this complicated and troubling story.
This isn’t just my opinion.
It’s also the view of Nancy Hogshead-Makar: “They have a duty to the entire campus, not just to her, and she’s dead now. So that excuse, if you will, that rationale, no longer holds true.”
The reason universities cannot wait for “that one brave victim,” she said, is that studies have shown that undetected rapists “do it over and over again.”
Hogshead-Makar is in a unique position to know. She is an attorney, a legal expert on compliance with Title IX through her work as the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. She is an Olympic champion with three gold medals and one silver in swimming from the 1984 games. She co-wrote “Equal Play: Title IX and Social Change” and has testified before Congress on gender equity in sports.
She is also a rape survivor.
It happened her sophomore year at Duke University. It was near dusk. She was out running when she was attacked, a brutal fight between her and the rapist in the woods. The violence lasted two and a half hours.
Duke University gave her counseling for what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, she dropped two classes in which finals were nearing and her campus housing was changed. She was redshirted from the swim team, her scholarship saved for when she was ready to return to practice.
“That is what we need to do for all women who are sexually assaulted, whether it was in the woods by a stranger, or in a dorm room by a peer,” she said. “But we don’t. We treat them differently. We blame them.”
Duke’s empathy for a then 19-year-old Hogshead-Makar rescued the future Olympic medalist, mother of three, wife and one of the strongest voices in America for young women’s civil rights.
Hogshead-Makar’s attacker was never caught.
“This is such a teachable moment for all schools and students and their families,” Hogshead-Makar said of the suicide of Menu Courey in June 2011.
The allegation is that in February 2010, Menu Courey was attacked off campus after a night of drinking and after having had consensual sex with one man, but no one else.
“Some rapists need to jump out of a bush to rape,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Others have a strategy of waiting until women are really drunk. Some overpower their victim. This is all rapist conduct.”
The right avenues are being pursued now in Columbia. A police investigation is launched, and MU president Tim Wolfe has requested an independent review of the university’s actions.
But Hogshead-Makar contends MU had notice to proceed with its own investigation — the legal standard that must be met under Title IX — long before ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” wrote extensively of the case last Friday. Hogshead-Makar was consulted on the original reporting by ESPN.
The standard was met by fall 2012 after university officials — not therapists bound by privacy laws — gained access to Menu Courey’s email account through a records request. This was months after Menu Courey had killed herself, ingesting 100 Tylenol. But she had saved a transcript of a rape crisis hotline online chat where she discussed the alleged attack in detail.
Too often, Hogshead-Makar said, allegations that involve athletes are kept to coaching and athletic administrators rather than handled outside those departments in ways that meet obligations under Title IX.
But disciplinary systems set up for all students can also bring complications. Colleges often check bad behavior with the lenient attitude that a young person is learning, growing toward full adulthood. That can be appropriate when the violation is minor, say being caught underage with liquor on campus. But sexual assaults are crimes and need to be understood within that context, she said.
“And sexual assault is a major reason why women interrupt their educational plans,” she said.
As an elite athlete herself, Hogshead-Makar respects the importance swimming played for Menu Courey, a young woman who had previously struggled with mental health issues. A scholarship athlete at a top Division I school is already within the top 2 percent of all high school athletes in the nation, she said.
And there is a need for fairness, justice all around. Young men who are accused have every right to have their names cleared as well. No one deserves rumors tainting a college experience, no matter if they are an athlete or not.
Hogshead-Makar also sees the need for a campaign to let victims of sexual assault know that things can get better, that they will be able to resume their lives, meet career and personal goals. But they have to reach out to find that a massive amount of resources can be available, including getting classes rescheduled, initiating no-contact orders and receiving professional counseling.
Instead, Menu Courey felt shamed.
“We need them to know that it is possible for them to be just fine and they can get help,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Think how different the story could have been had she known.”