Louisiana’s largest university has a confidential internal system for investigating claims of sexual assault and other crimes.

The LSU sexual misconduct policy that was adopted before the fall semester says people who claim they have experienced criminal sexual misconduct are “strongly encouraged” to report the offense to campus police or local law enforcement, but there’s no requirement that the claims are ever reported to authorities.

If they choose instead to go through the university’s quasi-judicial process, all parties — including witnesses whom each side is allowed to bring forward — must keep all of the details secret. Anyone who reveals information could face disciplinary action themselves, the policy notes.

Such secret trials, which are standard for colleges across the country, have drawn increased scrutiny in recent months, but advocates for sexual assault victims say that type of process provides the best possible way of ensuring victims feel comfortable bringing their claims forward and seeking help.

“I definitely think if you look at best practices and trends across the country — it’s right on par with what you’re seeing,” said LSU Women’s Center Director Summer Steib.

On the right path

Victims’ advocates, legislators, administrators and students mostly agree that LSU is charting the right course in addressing campus sexual assault, even as colleges and universities are placed under a glaring spotlight highlighting the issue.

In the past year, various groups at LSU have sought to raise attention in several ways. There have been front-page articles in the student newspaper. LSU recently joined the national “It’s on us” campaign to combat sexual violence. Demonstrations and other events have been held on campus.

“We agree that it’s an important issue,” LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said Friday. “We have a lot of people working hard on this.”

Rolling Stone magazine last month published a vivid account of an alleged gang rape said to have taken place on the University of Virginia campus in 2012. The UVa story, which was meant to highlight how colleges sometimes sweep under the rug cases that should be reported as crimes, has since unraveled amid questions over its accuracy, and the magazine has said it no longer stands behind its reporting on the brutal assault.

While apparent inaccuracies in the alleged UVa victim’s story have been brought to light, the focus on campus sexual assault appears to have largely maintained its momentum.

LSU statistics

From 2009 to 2013, LSU had 22 sexual assault reports, according to figures the flagship campus gave to a state panel examining campus assault.

According to LSU, all 22 incidents also were investigated by university or Baton Rouge police, though that was not explicitly required under campus policy.

Still, the reported figure is extremely low, based on nationally touted statistics that claim one in five female college students will be sexually assaulted before graduation.

A new report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics claims that only about 20 percent of campus sexual assault victims go to police.

But victims’ advocates argue that doesn’t mean there’s a need for mandatory reporting to law enforcement, as states like Virginia have weighed.

“You’re really talking about disempowering the individual and taking choices and matters out of their hands,” Steib said of mandatory reporting to police. “To force someone to go that route, I don’t think is the most productive way of addressing the issue.”

LSU’s latest sexual misconduct policy, which Alexander signed off on, effective June 18, covers all conduct on LSU’s campus, at university-sponsored activities and when a student or employee is in a capacity representing LSU.

Unlike at some other major universities across the country, including UVa, LSU advocates don’t seem to be expressing the same administrative concerns.

“We know these assaults are happening on campus,” Steib said. “The more reports we get, the greater reflection that people are really trusting the process and they feel safe and secure. Those are critical steps for survivors to begin healing.”

LSU offers self-defense classes for women.

All students must go through a training module called “My Student Body” before they can enroll in classes.

LSU also recently unveiled a smartphone app called “LSU Shield” to assist with reporting crimes to campus police.

“It’s taking a topic that’s usually seen as very silent, very shameful and providing a public forum,” Steib said. “I think those are some of the positive things that have come from it.”

‘Emma’s’ story

The Daily Reveille, LSU’s campus newspaper, started the semester with a long feature on sexual assault, including the tale of a female student who says she was assaulted but never reported the incident.

“We wanted to start the conversation about it,” Reveille Editor Chandler Rome said. “I felt that, on LSU’s campus, there wasn’t enough conversation about it.”

Rome said he especially felt uninformed on where victims of sexual assault could seek assistance. “That’s something I should know and I didn’t,” he said.

The paper granted anonymity to a female student to tell her story of assault on campus during her freshman year.

According to the story, “Emma” went to a bar with a guy she knew and suspects someone slipped something in her drink. She claims she fell in and out of consciousness that night as the man — a student from another college — attempted to assault her. She never reported it, and didn’t realize until much later that what happened likely was sexual assault. The Reveille ran her story, along with lists of sexual assault resources on and off campus.

“She was brave enough to talk to us about it,” Rome said. “It was not to cast LSU in a bad light or do anything like that, but we wanted to bring attention to this.”

Since then, momentum has continued to grow. The Student Government Association, through the national “It’s on us” campaign, has hosted seminars at fraternity houses.

Once a month the Women’s Center hosts Survivors Speak Out — an opportunity for survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories in a supportive environment or just listen to others in a similar position. It’s new, and Steib said the reception has been cozy.

“We don’t want it to be a huge event,” she said.

In October, the campus hosted a Take Back The Night event, a nationally popular protest of domestic and sexual violence. Of the dozens who participated, several attendees were given a chance to recount their own experiences with sexual violence.

‘Resolution procedure’

Here’s how the “resolution procedure,” which is to be followed for cases of non-consensual sexual intercourse or other types of violence, is outlined in LSU’s new assault policy:

  • A trained investigator will “conduct a full investigation,” which can include in-person interviews with all parties involved, and collect evidence.
  • Both parties have a chance to identify witnesses to be interviewed.
  • The investigator will submit a written investigative summary, based on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
  • Both parties are notified in writing of the investigation’s results.
  • Records are kept confidential, and all parties run the risk of punishment if they divulge details of the complaint.

The process is remarkably similar on campuses across the country.

Seeking best practices

Alexander, who has a daughter who is a freshman at LSU and another daughter who is a student at the University of Wisconsin, said efforts continue to seek out best practices and other areas where LSU can improve.

A report ordered by a legislative-created Campus Sexual Assault Task Force recently found no uniform policy for handling allegations across the state. Higher education leaders are now weighing efforts that could help streamline responses and create a system for best practices in response to sexual violence on campus.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who called for the state task force’s creation, said he expects to glean ideas for legislation in the coming year.

Already out of that process, Morrell said, he wants to require colleges and universities to conduct regular surveys of students to gain a better campus-by-campus picture of sexual violence.

“We are going to absolutely mandate anonymous surveys,” Morrell said. “The challenge we have is that every school has different financial resources. It’s a challenge we’re trying to navigate now.”

He also believes the Legislature could help protect universities from lawsuits when they follow policies that allow for expulsion or other punishment for sexual assault.

“They don’t want to face civil penalties if they follow a published policy,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.