After a Title IX complaint in 2014, the University amended its procedure for handling sexual assault accusations in September of the same year. The change removed students from the jury in such cases and lowered the burden of proof from “clear and persuasive” to “preponderance of the evidence.” While the legal system relies on the standard of evidence of “beyond reasonable doubt,” Princeton’s new standard convicts the accused if there is only a 51 percent chance the allegations are true.
The University court system, equipped with an understanding of campus culture and the ability to bypass the stigma of the legal system, better addresses assault on campus than legal measures would. But a student jury is necessary for a fair and effective process.
Reporting an incident of sexual assault should not be stressful for the victim. The option of reporting within the University, rather than involving an intimidating and unfamiliar legal system, encourages victims to come forward.
But with the responsibility of handling reports, the University must be equipped to perform a fair trial.
As a female college student, I feel equally afraid of my college-aged brother being wrongly accused of assault as being assaulted myself. False accusations are ruining students’ futures academically, professionally, and socially.
Take Occidental College as an example. After facing Title IX scrutiny in 2013, Occidental expelled a male student accused of rape — even though evidence indicated the sex was consensual. The case was dismissed from legal courts, and the student’s expulsion was widely viewed as a mistake made by a panicked administration.
By 2015, more than 40 students, including the student expelled from Occidental, had sued their colleges claiming their right to a fair trial was violated. This came after the Obama Administration enforced harsher guidelines on universities’ handling of sexual assault. In an effort to protect and to empower the victim, we have often forgotten the rights of the accused.
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights urged Princeton to remove students from juries because it says their presence in the trial could cause a “chilling effect” that discourages victims from reporting. With a new administration in 2017, we should rethink these changes that disproportionately favor the victim over the accused.
A student jury would keep University administration accountable and protect the rights of the accused. The Occidental case highlights the external factors that motivate college administrators. With the school’s reputation in mind, they may either suppress a case to retain an air of safety on campus or take extreme measures to protect the school’s integrity.
I imagine the ideal University court would house a jury deliberately taken from diverse groups on campus: Greek life, sports teams, international students, and so on. These students would be charged with weighing the evidence against their own experiences and understandings. Unlike an outside legal jury, these students would be familiar with University culture.
This is not to say that rape cases should be judged leniently. But in a case of he-said-she-said, the jury should understand what he and she are saying. We’ve all been greeted with blank stares when trying to explain eating clubs, the slums, the Street, and Princetoween to our friends at home. A jury of “locals” would understand the lingo and scenario, allowing them to better evaluate often ambiguous evidence.
While the administration may harbor concerns of reputation and precedent, a student jury would prioritize students’ well-beings. The jury’s primary concern is justice. A diverse group of students would evaluate the evidence empathetic to both the victim and the accused.
To mitigate the supposed “chilling effect” of a student jury, the University should include standard measures to ensure anonymity of the victim. The victim and the accuser could be left out of the jury portion of the trial, the evidence presented under pseudonyms, so that social pressure would not make a victim hesitant to report.
The involvement of students could also serve a larger social deterrent function. Many organizations seek to spread awareness of true consent. This strategy marks assault as socially unacceptable and repulsive. But despite online videos and zee-group discussions, sexual assault seems far away until you are involved.
The assault trial system as part of the campus culture could increase awareness and sensitivity to the issue since more people would experience offenses first-hand as jury members. It could facilitate conversation and understanding of assault among the entire student body.
If universities don’t seem to be handling assault trials justly, why not rely on police measures instead? First, university reporting is a comfortable and familiar outlet for a victim. Only 20 percent of female college students report to the police.
Worse, the police system often fails to take reports seriously. The rape kit backlog, a surplus of untested DNA evidence from sexual assault cases, illustrates the legal system’s inability to appropriately address these cases. More than 175,000 untested kits have been uncovered nationwide. The police are unable to handle assault, and universities must have consistent protocol to address reports.
Universities are challenged to take assault seriously while protecting the rights of the accused. To ensure this balance, include students in the adjudication process. The change in federal administrations provides an opportunity for the University to reflect on its own policies. The appropriate way to take assault seriously is not to elevate it irrationally, but to take just measures to deter it.
Jessica Nyquist is a computer science major from Houston, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.