Watchdog Q&A

Published — December 6, 2019

Q&A: Kristen Lombardi on the legacy of her sexual assault on campus series

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Introduction

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.

We’re continuing our Q&A series on journalists who published powerful stories. Ten years ago, our former reporter, Kristen Lombardi, published a landmark series on campus sexual assault. She reported that students found responsible for assaults often face little or no punishment, while survivors’ lives are upended. Even when administrators used a judicial system to hold perpetrators accountable, she found that it rarely led to tough punishment — even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders. We take a look at how much has changed since then. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

I gave a presentation with other investigative reporters at a journalism conference about my past reporting on the Boston archdiocese’s cover up of one notorious pedophile priest. Some victim advocates approached me with a rather jarring claim: colleges and universities were just as secretive about how they handled students’ rape complaints as the Catholic Church. 

My immediate reaction was one of disbelief. I had never heard about the college disciplinary process before. The advocates described these secretive proceedings dealing with what amounts to a felony crime. I was intrigued. I went back to our offices and began calling sources. It didn’t take long for me to hear the same anecdotes at individual schools across the country. I could see the makings of a great investigation into a seemingly dark secret on college campuses nationwide.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? 

At Public Integrity, my co-reporter, Kristin Jones and I spent a year digging into this campus disciplinary process. At the heart of our campus assault investigation were the 33 students we interviewed who had reported rape. Finding them was, by far, the biggest challenge. A lot of students thought they would just tell me their story and that’s all I would need. But I needed to corroborate what they were saying. I needed people who were comfortable with me filing records requests for their judicial files, talking to school officials, interviewing the accused students — in short, reporting the heck out of their cases. Some students just disappeared on us, even after helping us get documents or taping their stories on audio. Being able to navigate that emotional landscape, as a journalist, under deadline pressure, was very tough. The series took a huge emotional toll on me, which I didn’t fully appreciate until it ended. I steered clear of reporting on anything related to sexual assault until just recently. 

How might your reporting be different in the current climate?

I understand that Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is close to rolling back the 2011 Obama-era guidance for colleges and universities on how to handle campus assault claims. That guidance was one of the policy reforms to come out of our reporting. In some ways, rolling back its tenets means reverting to the way things were as I reported the series. But there is one significant caveat: there are more students at their schools and beyond speaking out about campus sexual assault. The series touched off a student movement, on both sides, that keeps this issue in the limelight in a way it wasn’t back in 2009-10.  

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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