NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The alleged rape of a 21-year-old female student by four football players in a Vanderbilt University dormitory this summer might have gone unreported if a university staff member hadn't had another reason to review surveillance footage.
It easily could have gone the way of almost all sexual assaults.
Some 90 percent of college rapes go unreported nationwide. That's a troubling reality that experts say reveals a culture — particularly acute on college campuses — that deters victims from coming forward, often fails to serve their best interests and does little to prevent sexual violence in the first place.
At Vanderbilt, the June 23 assault bears two other characteristics common to campus rape. The four former players charged in the assault apparently knew the woman — as in 85 percent of campus rape cases. And police said the assaults took place while the woman was unconscious.
The alleged attacks happened at a time when Vanderbilt and universities everywhere have had to re-evaluate their prevention efforts, policies and discipline procedures. New requirements were ordered by the U.S. Department of Education in response to what has been described as an "epidemic" of sexual assault on campus. They were triggered by a wave of complaints from female students against various colleges nationwide for failing to respond appropriately.
Vanderbilt administrators said they have moved aggressively to protect their students, and acted ahead of federal deadlines to make changes in the past year.
They won't discuss the specifics of the June incident but say they have strong security measures in place. Perhaps more importantly, they say they are grappling with the tougher task of making young people understand that sexual violence is unacceptable under any circumstances.
Creating a culture in which boundaries are explicit — and doing so in a world where drugs and alcohol, date-rape drugs and complex relationships can make it hard to sort out any incident — poses what experts say might be the biggest challenge of all.
'I kept trying to stop him'
If it wasn't for her best friend, one 2010 Vanderbilt graduate may never have reported being raped by an acquaintance in her dorm room as a sophomore.
Like many survivors, she wasn't sure what good it would do to come forward, and whether she'd be believed. She also didn't know if her name would be protected, and whether the police would have to get involved. The Tennessean does not identify victims of sexual assault.
What the student did know was that there was confusion in her own mind about what had happened to her that Saturday night in November 2007. She had invited the boy over. They'd smoked pot. They'd messed around before.
But that night was different. What she smoked left her sluggish, unable to move. In that condition she found herself resisting his advances.
Her clearest recollections are a back-and-forth exchange and his persistence. By the time he was asking to "go all the way," he already had.
"I kept trying to stop him. He wouldn't listen," she said. "I was finally able to put my hand on his chest. He finally got up and made some excuse."
A phone call with a friend back home, herself a rape victim, persuaded her to find someone to talk to. Two days later, she met with a counselor at the Student Health Center, but she thought he was dismissive of her story.
She felt better about the guidance she got from the university's Psychological and Counseling Center and the campus women's center, where supportive female staffers explained her options.
Her experience in 2007 came in the year that Vanderbilt reported the most rapes, 14, of any year in the past decade, according to reports filed with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Rising numbers around that time — complicated because of variables in reporting — spurred local and national discussions of campus safety, said a women's center staff member at the time, Inderjit "Vicky" Basra.
Basra, who left in 2009, said school officials came to understand the impact of sexual violence.
"We had finally created an environment on campus where women felt safe and comfortable coming forward to talk," Basra said. "To me, that was an incredible success."
The 2010 graduate decided to file a complaint through the on-campus student misconduct process. She had decided not to be physically examined and believed her "he-said, she-said" case would be difficult for police to investigate.
She said university officials put her at ease at first, but that feeling would not last.
She and the man she accused had to sit in the same room while sharing conflicting accounts of what happened, a practice that ended in 2008, when the university revisited its sexual misconduct policy for the first time in more than a decade. School officials did so again during the 2011-12 school year, moving sexual assault cases into the hands of investigators with more expertise.
The current policies define consent explicitly and lower the burden of proof for victims. Over time, the university has moved from a "Did she say no?" policy toward one of "Did she say yes?"
In the case of the 2007 incident, the sexual misconduct panel chose not to punish the accused man. Afterward, the victim doubted whether the panelists — including two students — understood the policy.
"The fact that I said 'no' multiple times didn't mean anything, apparently," she said.
Vanderbilt makes changes
Vanderbilt officials declined to discuss any policy changes made or being developed as a result of the June 23 alleged rape. But in an hourlong interview, Mark Bandas, associate provost and dean of students, described a vigorous commitment to improving victim services, discipline policies and prevention.
"We have a team of highly trained and well-coordinated professionals that provide support and care to victims of sexual violence in the immediate situation and thereafter," he said. "We respond quickly, sensitively and professionally. And we have invested in sexual violence prevention programs."
In response to new federal mandates, Vanderbilt instituted a number of changes last year, from yet another rewrite of the sexual misconduct policy to clarifying which incidents must be reported. Most importantly, Bandas said, the university separated responsibility for sexual assault investigations from all other student misconduct cases.
While touting security measures — including locked dorms, a 24-hour escort service, emergency "blue light" phones across campus and its trained police force — Vanderbilt also has tried to tackle something harder to change: the culture that has made sexual violence pervasive across campuses nationwide.
Vanderbilt's programs directly challenge men to change their behaviors, a tactic advocates say is among the most important prevention measures.
"Addressing hyper-masculinity is getting men to understand that sex is a mutual decision and that consent should be indicated overtly in word or deed," Bandas said.
Students so far seem to welcome the increased attention. They spoke positively of a series of videos the university now requires them to watch, part of its effort to enlist them in creating a culture where sexual violence won't be tolerated.
After hearing a description of Vanderbilt's efforts, Jeff Bucholtz, co-founder of We End Violence, an educational consulting firm, said the university appears to be more proactive than many other universities. The challenge, he said, is getting students to "rethink 18 years of socialization."
"If you really want to make an impact, it takes a big investment," he said.
Work to be done
A senior student-athlete assaulted after a party in 2009 said the university's efforts to change the culture ring hollow. Putting new policies in place isn't enough.
She said she was assaulted after becoming "blackout drunk" at a party where drinking had escalated into a competition.
Although what exactly took place remains murky, the student said another student-athlete she knew promised to walk her back to her dorm, but led her to his own room instead. It was there that she sent urgent text messages to a friend, who soon arrived, intervened in the sexual assault and took her home.
Later, she visited the women's center to ask about her options. Unsure about how she could prove what happened, she decided not to report the rape.
But that doesn't mean she did nothing. The student began to take part in prevention efforts and became a resource for other assaulted women.
And she set her sights on a particular target: her fellow student-athletes.
Last year, she handed out sexual assault statistic sheets in the athletes' dining hall. She asked her peers to sign pledges that they would not engage in sexual violence.
Some refused, she said. Others joked about teammates who had already disqualified themselves. Some made lewd jokes about female athletes.
It convinced her the university has a long way to go.