Why the Campus Rape Crisis Confounds Colleges
In the nationwide controversy over the proper response to pervasive sexual assault on college campuses, there is one thing almost everyone agrees on: school disciplinary boards have rarely done a very good job of handling these cases. That’s partly because these boards were never intended to try serious crimes. Composed of faculty, administrators and sometimes students, they were originally created to handle honor-code violations like plagiarism and underage drinking. Their members generally don’t have training in law, investigation or the use of physical evidence. There are rarely hard and fast rules about what sort of information is and isn’t admissible. Yet due to a combination of law enforcement failure and federal regulation, they are on the front lines of the campus rape crisis.
As months of harrowing headlines have made clear, the dimensions of that crisis are staggering. According to an April report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, “One in five women is sexually assaulted in college.” This figure, which comes from the National Institute of Justice’s 2007 “Campus Sexual Assault Study,” has been much disputed by conservatives, but according to a detailed analysis by PolitiFact, “the overall findings in the study were on par with similar surveys conducted over the years that have measured sexual assaults on campus.”
The vast majority of campus rape survivors know their assailants, and they rarely go to the police—according to one Justice Department report, fewer than 5 percent of attempted or completed rapes on campus are reported to law enforcement. For many victims, then, the trauma doesn’t end with the attack itself, since they face months or years of sharing school facilities with their rapists, who continue their college careers with impunity.
When students do report these assaults, they are much more likely to turn to someone in the university community than to law enforcement, says David Lisak, a leading scholar on campus rape and a consultant for universities trying to develop responses. “Because of that, universities are stuck. They can’t ignore these reports, either morally, ethically or legally. So this is where we are: confronted with a problem that is really mostly serious criminal conduct and asking universities to respond and investigate and adjudicate. And that really presents some pretty serious paradoxes and anomalies and, in some ways, even absurdities.”
There are three major and sometimes conflicting criticisms of the school disciplinary process for sexual assault cases. First, to some—though by no means all—victims’ advocates, treating rape cases as internal disciplinary matters to be handled by amateurs trivializes a serious felony. In a February letter to the Obama administration, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s leading anti-rape group, wrote: “It would never occur to anyone to leave the adjudication of a murder in the hands of a school’s internal judicial process. Why, then, is it not only common, but expected…when it comes to sexual assault?”
Second, many victims find campus disciplinary boards more invested in protecting the school’s reputation than in seeking justice—one reason that sixty colleges, Occidental among them, are now being investigated by the Education Department for their handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
Finally, defense attorneys and civil libertarians—as well as rape-skeptical conservative pundits—condemn the boards as kangaroo courts in which the accused are denied ordinary due process.
Yet if no one is happy with the status quo, the alternative isn’t clear. For some critics, the solution is simple: turn rape cases over to the criminal justice system. But the reason campuses are handling these cases in the first place is that the criminal justice system has failed rape victims so consistently. “I say this as a criminologist: I’ve given up on the criminal justice system,” says Danielle Dirks, an Occidental sociology professor and one of the women who filed complaints against the school with the Education Department. “College campuses, which are supposed to be the bastions of cutting-edge knowledge and a chance to shape the rest of the country, actually can do right.”
So far, though, that’s mostly theoretical, since few campuses are “doing right” right now. The question, then, is twofold: Can the college disciplinary processes tasked with protecting students from rapists be saved? And should they be?
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