If all the recent coverage about sexual assault on college campuses has done anything, it has encouraged people to scrutinize more closely the prevalence of sexual assault and the difficulty of bringing justice as well as to brainstorm potential solutions. The very public cases at Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Vanderbilt University, and theUniversity of Virginia, as well as the federal Office of Civil Rights mandated policy changes at a number of institutions, have ignited policymakers and university administrators to finally begin to take action.
After a Rolling Stone article was published detailing an alleged gang rape at UVA, even after numerous contradictions in that story were discovered, many members of the Virginia legislature were quick to take action. A Virginia senate subcommittee in January approved a bill requiring that sexual assault on college campuses in the state be reported to the police within 24 hours of learning of the incident. However, in their haste to find a solution to a problem long neglected, these policymakers have overlooked the possibility that such requirements for reporting to the police might harm the very victims they are trying to help.
Granted, it is no surprise that legislatures are interested in taking action. The data is clear. Just between 2011 to 2013, reports of forcible sex offenses on U.S. campuses went up from 3,443 to 5,054, a 47percent increase in two years. Sexual assault on college campuses is far too prevalent and universities are not doing enough to prevent it or bring about justice for victims. To be fair, universities are generally getting better at pursuing cases. Perhaps this is due to new mandates by the OCR or simply because of a growing understanding throughout society that reporting a low number of sexual assault cases depicts a university as being too slow to respond rather than as a sign that sexual assault isn’t a problem at said college.
However, schools are still failing when it comes to handling the indictments and carrying out justice. Colleges are not required to report the outcomes of reported alleged sexual assault cases, making it hard to determine the scope of the problem. The best data we have is from a voluntary Department of Justice surveys with 120 universities in 2012 and 2013. According to the survey, there were a total of 759 reported cases of alleged sexual assault. Of those cases, universities imposed sanctions in 478 incidences, with 63 reprimands, 135 suspensions, 56 expulsions, 56 counseling, 17 community service and 151 other punishments. This federal data shows that currently “students found responsible for sexual assault are as likely to be ordered to have counseling or given a reprimand as they are to be kicked out.”
This seems to confirm what we’ve heard anecdotally for years. At the UVA, zero students have been expelled for sexual misconduct in the past decade. And the Dear Harvard letter from last year shows how little that Harvard seems to be willing to do for sexual assault victims, as evidenced by the school refusing to relocate the attacker to a different dorm, instead forcing the victim to eventually move herself.
If these facts show anything, it’s that schools have clearly failed at handling sexual assault cases in the past. It’s a point that advocates for both the victims and theaccused can agree on (even if they don’t agree on what to do about it). But this reality does not mean that the best or even proper response is to ignore the problem and rely on the police to handle these sexual assault cases instead. Even if the victim does choose to involve the police, the university still must pursue an independent investigation and determine an outcome for an alleged violation of school policy. Police involvement does not relieve a university of this responsibility. Universities must become better equipped to deal with these cases.
Moreover, the reality is that our current criminal justice system also is unable to sufficiently handle cases of sexual assault —ranging from properly understanding how to treat victims who come forward, to how to investigate in a timely and considerate manner, to how our laws define consent, there is still much that needs to be figured out. At the end of the day, until the criminal justice system is also better able to handle these cases, the choice to report these cases to the police must rest with the victim.
In light of this, it would be a mistake for Virginia to treat the mandatory reporting of any case of alleged college sexual assault to the police as an end-all solution. Because people realize the limitations of the federal and state laws in handling these cases, police reporting might deter even more students to report cases to school administrators. Any chance for help and justice is removed if those who (justly) do not have confidence in the criminal justice system believe they can no longer even speak out to the college administration because of such a law.
Perhaps such a law may be justified in the future. But now is not the time for this particular reform. In the short-term, we need to consider how colleges can best serve victims of sexual assault and the campus communities at large. Reforming college policies is easier than the various changes needed to improve the criminal justice system regarding sexual assault. And in the long-term, hopefully we will be able to curb rape culture and curtail the number cases of sexual assault altogether.
Marni Morse is a sophomore from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.