Colleges need to get out of the law enforcement business and start turning over all sexual assault allegations to police, refocusing their own efforts on educating students about rape to prevent attacks that are as commonplace as they are underreported.
The deans are out of their depth, dodging an open discussion of what has become a national scourge by assigning the task of disciplining rapists to student conduct boards that were designed to cuff cheaters. Sexual assault is a crime, not an infraction of the college handbook; squeamish administrators need to acknowledge as much if the accused is to have a shot at due process and the accuser a hope of justice.
Recent headlines across Massachusetts highlight the academy’s level of dysfunction in addressing sexual assault. A committee at Amherst College released its long-awaited study of sexual violence on a campus where, after recent high profile incidents, students began sporting T-Shirts advertising “Amherst — sweeping sexual assault under the rug since 1821.” The committee report denied that crimes were covered up, but it did note that victims are often pressured to stay silent by other students who belong to the same extracurricular club as the accused and accuser.
“There is no need to name specific student groups here,” the panel concluded, leaving one to ask, why not, exactly? Aren’t women entitled to know which groups circle the wagons around the worst of their members? Wouldn’t naming the clubs be a first step toward changing their culture of tolerance toward sexual assault?
Administrators at Curry College in Milton also chose silence over full and prompt disclosure, failing to inform students about a recent gang rape in a campus dormitory until three days after the arrest of the suspects, two of whom are former Curry students. Wouldn’t student safety have been better served by alerting the campus? Wouldn’t a community forum have been a wiser course for educators than stonewalling?
At Brandeis last week, the buzz on campus was less about a Waltham police investigation of an allegation of sexual assault at a recent off-campus fraternity party than about student e-mails urging silence about the incident to protect the reputation of Greek life on a campus that does not officially recognize fraternities or sororities.
Is this not one of those much sought after “teachable moments”? An opportunity to explode for students the misguided notion that the “real world” exists only beyond the college gates? To put to rest the prevalent, and dangerous, idea that accusations of criminal behavior carry no serious consequences as long as the alleged conduct occurs behind ivy-covered walls?
In fact, studies repeatedly have found that colleges’ judicial conduct boards rarely impose harsh penalties on students found “responsible” for violating policies against sexual misconduct. In one comprehensive investigation, led by former Boston Phoenix reporter Kristin Lombardi, the Center for Public Integrity joined with NPR in 2009 for a yearlong review of how such cases are handled on campuses nationwide. Victims complained that rapists walked away with only wrist slaps. The accused protested that secret hearings violated their rights to due process. No one thought that college disciplinary proceedings were up to the task.
That’s precisely why we have a criminal justice system, to balance the rights of accused and accuser. As imperfectly as it does that job, especially in cases of sexual assault, the courts are a better venue than a closed-door college hearing room for seeking justice in cases that, by definition, often lack witnesses and physical evidence.
Sexual assault is a crime whether it occurs at a house party in South Boston or at a frat house in Amherst. Treating it as a conduct code infraction is one more way we trivialize rape and infantilize college students. If a 19-year-old postal worker or a 21-year-old carpenter is accused of sexual assault, he goes to court, not to his union’s judicial conduct board. So should college students.
That does not mean colleges should walk away from this issue, anymore than they should ignore the binge drinking, drug abuse and mental health issues that also plague their campuses but get scant attention until the fatal car crash, the drug overdose or the campus suicide. Temporary restraining orders and careful class scheduling and housing assignments can keep accused and accuser apart, pending resolution of the case, ensuring one party’s safety and the other’s presumption of innocence.
In the meantime, colleges could do what they do best — teach — by beginning where good teaching always begins — with a healthy dose of candor and humility.