"The Hunting Ground": Film Exposes How Colleges Cover Up Sexual Assault and Fail to Protect Students

January 28, 2015


Amy Ziering

producer of the new documentary, The Hunting Ground. She also produced The Invisible War about rape in the military, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for an Academy Award.

Kirby Dick

director of the new documentary, The Hunting Ground. He also directed The Invisible War about rape in the military, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for an Academy Award.

As a jury in Tennessee has convicted two former Vanderbilt University football players of raping an unconscious student in a dorm room, we look at a groundbreaking new documentary about sexual assault on college campuses across the country. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey could face decades in prison after being convicted of a combined total of 16 felony counts, including aggravated rape. Two other former Vanderbilt football players, Brandon Banks and Jaborian McKenzie, are awaiting trial over their role in the rape. However, the court cases mark a rare example where students accused of sexual assault have actually faced punishment. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, "The Hunting Ground" shows how colleges and universities across the nation are covering up sexual assaults and failing to protect students from repeat offenders. We speak with the film’s director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Ziering. Their previous film, "The Invisible War," which exposed the epidemic of sexual assault in the military, won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for an Academy Award.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where a new documentary on campus rape has just premiered as a major conviction has unfolded in Tennessee. A jury in Nashville has convicted two former Vanderbilt University football players of raping a fellow student in a dorm room. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey could face decades in prison after being convicted on a combined total of 16 felony counts, including aggravated rape. Two other former Vanderbilt football players—Brandon Banks and Jaborian McKenzie—are awaiting trial over their role in the rape. The victim, who was unconscious at the time, says she doesn’t remember being raped as her assailants took photographs and video of the attack. After the verdict Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Jan Norman read a statement from the victim.

JAN NORMAN: "I am also hopeful that the publicity this case has received will lead to a discussion of how we can end sexual violence on college campuses. Finally, I want to remind other victims of sexual violence: You are not alone. You are not to blame." Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Vanderbilt case marks a rare example where college students accused of rape have been punished both by their universities and the legal system. The four students were kicked off the football team and banned from campus after the criminal charges were filed. One of the students, Jaborian McKenzie, enrolled in another school, Alcorn State, where he was allowed to play football despite the charges against him. He was later removed from the team amidst a media firestorm. A fifth player, Chris Boyd, pleaded guilty to helping cover up the rape, and received probation after agreeing to testify against the other suspects. He was dismissed from the football team, but allowed to keep his scholarship and finish his classwork at Vanderbilt. Boyd later joined the National Football League as a member of the practice squad for the Dallas Cowboys.

Well, here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a groundbreaking new film has premiered that deals with the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and shows just how rare criminal convictions like the ones at Vanderbilt are. The Hunting Ground was created by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, makers of the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. This is the trailer for their latest film, Hunting Ground.

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I got a call from the dean of admissions asking, "If you were to get into Harvard, would you accept?" And I said yes, because I knew my mom would kill me if I said anything else.

UNIDENTIFIED: The first few weeks, I made some of my best friends. But two of us were sexually assaulted before classes had even started.

KAMILAH WILLINGHAM: I went to the Dean of Students’ Office, and she said, "I just want to make sure that you don’t talk to anyone about this."

CAROLINE HELDMAN: They protect perpetrators because they have a financial incentive to do so.

UNIDENTIFIED: Problem of sexual assault on campuses is enormous.

UNIDENTIFIED: I think it’s fair to say that they cover these crimes up. There’s a lot of victim blaming.

UNIDENTIFIED: He lectured us about how we shouldn’t go out in short skirts.

UNIDENTIFIED: They told me, despite the fact that I had a written admission of guilt that I presented to them, it could only prove that he loved me.

UNIDENTIFIED: They discourage them from going to the police. If it goes to the police, then it’s more likely to end up as a public record.

UNIDENTIFIED: Universities are protecting a brand.

UNIDENTIFIED: Campus police cannot contact an athlete.

DON McPHERSON: He won the Heisman Trophy with his DNA in a rape kit.

DAVID LISAK: Just sit down with the students and ask them, "Where are the hotspots?"

UNIDENTIFIED: SAE, sexual assault expected.

UNIDENTIFIED: The second most common type of insurance claim against the paternity industry is for rape.

CAROLINE HELDMAN: Her rapist’s name matched the name of two other cases, and he was allowed back on campus.

UNIDENTIFIED: The message is clear: You’re not going to win.

UNIDENTIFIED: We started seeing, you know, what was happening at campuses across the country.



UNIDENTIFIED: Why has no one connected the dots before?

UNIDENTIFIED: These students went from sexual assault victims to survivors and now activists.

CAROLYN LUBY: My name is Carolyn Luby.

ALEXA SCHWARTZ: My name is Alexa Schwartz.

ARI MOSTOV: My name is Ari Mostov.

UNIDENTIFIED: This is a national problem.

UNIDENTIFIED: We are fed up!

UNIDENTIFIED: I was getting threatened. It was working in their favor to silence me, and I was terrified.

UNIDENTIFIED: I thought if I told them, they would take action, but the only action they took was against me.

UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve got a lot further to go.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Hunting Ground. Just after we arrived here in Park City, I sat down with the filmmakers, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Their 2012 film, The Invisible War, exposed the issue of sexual assault in the military, prompting changes in policy. That issue remains in the spotlight as just this week a former Army prosecutor who oversaw sexual assault cases was found guilty of rape. Major Erik Burris was court-martialed and sentenced to 20 years in prison. I began by asking Amy Ziering, producer of The Hunting Ground, why she and Kirby Dick decided to make a film on campus rape.

AMY ZIERING: We weren’t anticipating making another film in this same area, but every time we showed Invisible War on campuses, Amy, someone came up to us and said, "Actually, this happened to me here, and there’s a lot of analogies between what you’re pointing out going on in the military going on at my school." And Kirby would find that, as well, at every—at almost every screening at different universities across the country. And then we started getting letters in our inboxes: "Dear Ms. Ziering, Dear Mr. Dick, will you please make a film on campus assaults? This happened to me at X university." And we actually were working on a very different project, and we just looked at each other and said we cannot not make this film. I mean, we were shocked that this is going on, and we felt like, well, actually, we understand these issues, we know how to make this kind of film, and we felt compelled to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy, I went to one of your premieres here at Sundance, and the response afterwards was overwhelming. You were besieged. I watched one woman come up to you and say, "It happened to my daughter."

AMY ZIERING: No, that happens—yeah. With this film also, yeah—

AMY GOODMAN: Said it happened to her daughter.

AMY ZIERING: Yeah, yeah, and also mothers come up and said, "It happened to me 30 years ago at Dartmouth." I’ve gotten that a lot. "It happened to me 30 years ago. And thank you for doing this. I couldn’t speak then."

AMY GOODMAN: Kirby, this film is not only about people who have been deeply hurt, you know, sexually assaulted, raped; it’s about women who are organizing right now all over the country. And it’s led by two women from the University of North Carolina—both of them were raped—Annie Clark and Andrea Pino. They are remarkable. It happened to them several years apart from each other, but they found each other. They’re now traveling the country, helping victims at universities file Title IX antidiscrimination complaints to the Department of Education. They were raped early on in their college careers?

KIRBY DICK: Yes, both of them were, I think, assaulted within the first or second year that they were there, yes. And then, Andrea found out about Annie Clark’s earlier activism three or four years ago and reached out, and they formed this bond. And then they started—you know, Annie was appalled that this was still going on. And so, the two of them decided to really do something. And the first thing they did was start to investigate in how to file a Title IX complaint. And so, they, without any attorneys, wrote and filed a complaint against the school, which was accepted by the Department of Education.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most galling parts of this film, Amy, is how administrations respond—or don’t respond. I mean, you have Annie Clark, now one of the organizers of a major antirape movement in this country, when she was raped and went to the University of North Carolina administration, one of the officials said, "It’s like a football game"? What is like a football game?

AMY ZIERING: Rape is like football: You have to think back on what you would have done differently, just like you would in any play in any game. That was what she said the administrator had said to her.

KIRBY DICK: This is what was so appalling, is, you know, we interviewed, on camera, over 60 women, and men, and we were—over and over and over, you would hear—you hear the stories of these women who were assaulted, and that was profoundly—you know, it was traumatizing to them. But they trusted their school. They went to their school. They had the courage to come forward to talk about it, and they trusted that their school would do the right thing. And in so many cases, you heard this form of victim blaming, like "It was your fault," like "You drank too much. You were dressed too provocatively." And it was just from across the board, whether it’s Ivy League schools, Southern schools, small liberal arts colleges. It was shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: Amy, can you talk about some of the examples of some of the punishments that are meted out to students? You know, rarely are they found responsible, but in the cases that they are?

AMY ZIERING: Oh, the punishments are ridiculous. One was like a $75 fine, a $25 fine, a book report, a poster board on 10 ways to approach a girl you like. What was it at another school?

KIRBY DICK: Well, it was 50 hours of community service at a rape crisis center.

AMY GOODMAN: Perpetrator is told to serve at a rape crisis center?

KIRBY DICK: Yes, yes, which is just the most absurd.

AMY GOODMAN: Kirby, you have these full screens in the film that show statistics, the number of people who complain on campuses of rape or sexual assault—and, of course, this is very small compared to how many are actually raped or assaulted—but those numbers compared to how many people are expelled. And at university after university, you see on the screen a big fat zero?

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is—you know, this is what was so shocking, is that these schools—I mean, we know that assaults are going on in each of these schools in the hundreds of times a year, perhaps even thousands of times a year at these schools, and yet no one is getting expelled, year after year after year. You know, at University of Virginia, for example, well over 200 assaults over a period of time, that people have reported—these are only the reported assaults, keep in mind—no one was expelled during that time.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s something else that’s very profound in this film. You come to understand universities all too often want to protect their brand more than the victim, that they don’t want to report these assaults. They don’t want to expel people. And yet, when it comes to what is called "honor crimes," like plagiarism, they expel scores of people. Explain.

KIRBY DICK: I mean, one of the unfortunate things is there’s very low transparency on this issue across the campus—across the country, so it’s very hard to even get these numbers. We were fortunate to get these numbers from the University of Virginia, who had not expelled anyone over a multi-year period, yet they had expelled, I think, nearly 200 people for other much more minor infractions like plagiarism. So that really tells you a lot about the priorities of the school and about, you know, the fact that protecting their students is not the number one priority.

AMY GOODMAN: In The Hunting Ground, you interview people at every level, the women or men who have been sexual assaulted. You also have a rapist, who has come out of jail, his face fogged. Explain his story.

KIRBY DICK: Well, what he had to say was that—I mean, one of the things our film shows is, just like in the military, these crimes are committed by a small number of men, a small percentage of men. It’s—most men are not rapists. Most men and athletes—you know, most athletes are not rapists. Most men in fraternities are not rapists. But it’s a small percentage of men who are committing these crimes, and committing them over and over. So, repeat offenders really are the core of this problem.

So we were able to interview one. And he talked about the MO of a repeat offender, which is, you know, to pick out someone who seems—doesn’t seem to have friends around them, who is getting drunk, who feels safe in a college environment, and then befriend them. And then he said it’s something that, you know, can be done again and again. And he actually did say if they’re not caught, the likelihood of them repeating is, in his words, nearly 100 percent.

AMY ZIERING: And if I can add, it was based on all that research and our knowledge that we wanted to name the film The Hunting Ground and show that it’s actually a calculated, premeditated act. It is not a hook-up gone bad. It’s not he said/she said. It’s not all the things that people intuitively think is what’s going on. "Oh, we can’t do anything about it. Kids drink. What are you going to do?" It’s actually not, you know, and that, I think, is really shocking and revelatory and what people need to know and understand.

AMY GOODMAN: You interview a campus police officer at the University of Notre Dame who would ultimately resign because he felt he was thwarted from conducting investigations into allegations of sexual assault. He said that the campus police were not allowed to approach any student athlete or an employee of an athletic facility or department to find out where an athlete might be.

AMY ZIERING: So that’s what the problem is. It’s not that, you know, athletes are rapists. It’s a problem as we have a broken system that allows them to commit these crimes without any kind of repercussions.

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, it’s—

AMY ZIERING: Right? They’re protected. I mean, it’s crazy. And that’s really what we want to come across, is it’s a hunting ground, it’s a place where people are not safe, not because there’s a preponderance of perpetrators, but because there’s nothing in place to prosecute those people, and there’s no incentive to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Kirby Dick, the statistics are astounding. When you talk about 16 to 20 percent of undergraduate women have been sexually assaulted on college campuses across the country, you say 88 percent of women raped on college campuses do not report. Eighty-eight percent? In 2012, 40 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults. And less than 8 percent of men commit more than 90 percent of the assaults?

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, I mean, this is—you know, it’s astonishing. Again, of course, the last figure goes back to the fact that these are repeat offenders, that, you know, this is not drunk hook-ups, he said/she said. This is—really, another way to refer to it is "target rape," that these are men who do this again and again and get better at it each time.

AMY GOODMAN: In September, we spoke to Emma Sulkowicz, who’s also featured in The Hunting Ground. Emma Sulkowicz is the Columbia University student who says she was raped by a fellow student. After she reported her assault to Columbia, she had to go before a disciplinary panel, where she was forced to explain to a university official how the painful manner in which she had been raped was physically possible. Then the panel found that the accused assailant was not responsible. Two other women also came forward with complaints against the same student. So, in protest, Emma Sulkowicz vowed to carry a dorm mattress around with her everywhere on campus until the student is either expelled or leaves on his own. So, on Democracy Now!, she explained why she chose this form of protest.

EMMA SULKOWICZ: I was raped in my own bed. And, of course, rape can happen anywhere, but for me, it sort of desecrated one of the most intimate and private places of my life. And the way that I’ve brought my story from a place that I keep secret out into the public eye sort of mirrors carrying the mattress itself out into the light for everyone to see. So I felt like it would be an appropriate metaphor.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student, on Democracy Now! She was just invited by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to be her guest at the State of the Union address. Can you talk about how these women, who feel that their complaints, that their allegations of rape and sexual assault, are not being taken seriously by administrations, are taking action? They are building a movement in this country.

KIRBY DICK: It is incredible what they’ve accomplished, what—young women like Emma, and Annie and Andrea in our film. I mean, in two years, this has gone from something that nobody talked about to something that’s on the front pages daily. But I just want to say that that’s just the beginning. It’s really up to all of us—you know, parents, teachers, faculty, trustees, everyone—to solve this problem, because it’s been going on for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Now scores of universities, colleges across the country are being investigated?

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, I think we now have up to 95 schools are being investigated for Title IX violations. And, you know, those investigations take a long, long time. I mean, and so far—I mean, I applaud the Department of Education for taking this on, but the schools themselves should not wait to be investigated. They should be solving this problem themselves before this ever happens.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, you did Invisible War, to tremendous acclaim, and it has really begun a movement in this country to deal with sexual assault in the military. And the big move, especially in Congress, is to have these investigations taken out of the chain of command, because so often they’re involved either with the cover-up or perhaps even involved. Now, with this film, The Hunting Ground, you’re talking about assaults on college campuses. Is there a similar move in the movement that’s growing around the country to, in a sense, take the investigation out of the chain of command, as well, out of the power of the university that’s protecting its brand?

AMY ZIERING: Yeah, there has been. I mean, one of the solutions that people have come up with is have independent bodies investigate these crimes that don’t answer to the university itself, so that you take out that inherent bias. And that would make—just ensure a fairer system, whatever the outcome is. And so, that is something that many people are pushing and suggesting, and one of the things that we recommend.

AMY GOODMAN: That was producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick. Their film, The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses, has just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. Their previous film, The Invisible War, about rape in the military, won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2012 and was nominated for an Academy Award.

When we come back, I speak with one of the Senate’s leading advocates for changing the way universities and the military respond to sexual violence: California Senator Barbara Boxer. We’ll talk about her bill, her plans for retirement, and why she supports President Obama’s authorization for war. This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting from Park City TV. Back in a minute.

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