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.

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.

“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.

Colleges could do what they do best — teach — by beginning where good teaching always begins — with a healthy dose of candor and humility.

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.


Tags: Gender

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  • Robert Sanchez

    Great article.

    I agree with every word. Colleges can’t provide victims justice, and they can’t provide alleged perpetrators due process. They should limit their involvement in such cases to “no contact” orders and preventative education. If a student is actually charged with sexual assault, then they should be put on interim suspension pending the outcome of their case. If the student is found guilty, expel them. If the student is aquitted or the charges are dropped. They should be let back on campus with a harshly enforced “no contact” order concerning the alleged victim.

    • Seen The Light

      what if it is found that a woman lied? Should she be arrested? I know what I say, but I am curious as to your response.

  • Alice

    What I find astounding is that this discussion is word for word the same as the one going on when I was an undergraduate at Princeton. I go back for my 25th reunion this year–why on earth haven’t colleges figured this one out? During a Take Back the Night march at Princeton in the late ’80s (when marchers were jeered and pelted with beer by members of the most egregiously offending club), one of the town policemen asked why girls never called the police when they were raped. At the time we were encouraged to speak to a Dean, but then had to repeat the story many times, in each case to a male member of the administration. When I was there they did finally produce a female point person and simplified the reporting process, but I guess not much progress has been made since then in most schools. Until every assault is reported directly to police, and the culture of maintaining “Old Boy” traditions which include mistreatment of women is abandoned, colleges will be promoting abuse of their female students.

  • Recent Alum

    While I agree completely with the intent of the article, I think you are dramatically overestimating what the police and judicial systems can do in these cases. Most of them lack sufficient evidence for charges to be brought, let alone enforced. Perpetrators at colleges get light sentences because the evidence would never hold up in court. While I agree that colleges are underprepared for this type of activity, it is unreasonable to expect that the judicial system is a silver bullet.

    • Seen The Light

      No one ever said they were a silver bullet. We are saying they are the better choice to handle this.

  • Justin Locke

    I view these events as a major managerial failure on the part of the schools. Besides the obvious problem of how they handle the incidents after the fact, what are these institutions doing in terms of an ounce of prevention? Are they recognizing the statistical probability of these assaults, and if so, what kinds of preventive training is being provided?

    Demonizing offenders and administrators after the fact is cold comfort to these victims. It is truly sad that greater effort was not made to prevent these events in the first place.

  • Aaron

    I cant believe that no one has mentioned the fact that schools have an obligation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate anytime a student comes forward with an alleged sexual assault or harassment. Title IX requires that schools do this.

    Also, many students also choose to go through the conduct process because school’s have a lower standard of proof (once again mandated by OCR to be a preponderance of the evidence (as opposed to clear and convincing)). So while the evidence may not be enough for a victim of sexual assualt to get justice in the court system, they can at times get some form of it at their university.

    • Robert Sanchez

      You’re missing the point. Colleges don’t administer “justice,” it’s an administrative matter for the school. They also fail to provide an ounce of due process to accused perpetrators. An innocent student could be branded a rapist and kicked out of school because some poorly trained administrator thinks it’s “more likely than not” that they may have done something.

      The simple fact that someone was accused of wrongdoing, in and of itself, makes it more likely than not that they are guilty. So why even bother with the pretense of a hearing? Most people accused of sexual assault are guilty. You’ve been accused of sexual assault. Therefore, from these facts alone, it’s more likely than not that you’re guilty. Case closed.

      Colleges can’t provide justice for victims, and they can’t provide due process for the accused. They have no business being involved in this game.

    • Mark Sanford

      Yet another person presuming that the accusers never lie and the accused are always guilty.

    • Seen The Light

      its not justice if the process disregards basic elements of fairness, presumption of innocence until proven guilty, etc.

  • Guest

    Buy a weapon, join the Local Gun Club and learn to shoot WELL. Get your permit and CARRY ALL THE TIME. This is stop rape on most campuses…shoot the perp.

    • ZPT205

      The vast majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes– especially on college campuses. It’s not people jumping out of bushes; it’s people known to the victim going to far and refusing to take “no” as an answer, or preying on intoxicated victims, or using date rape drugs, etc. Carrying a weapon won’t help– and asking college students to mix weapons and partying is a very, very, very bad idea for reasons that should be obvious.

  • David F

    Sexual assault is not a matter for college deans, it is a matter for local police. It shouldn’t even be an option for the college to handle it or even have any part in the process. The only way for the accuser and accused to get justice is through the court system.

    I imagine colleges and universities would be more proactive in prevention of sexual assault if there were a requirement for them to post all crime statistics relating to their students, on and off campus right on the recruiting web page.

    • MelissaJane

      I agree with this. I don’t understand what gives colleges the authority to handle cases of violent assault. I would think they would have a duty to report a crime to the police.

  • A Dean

    This discussion illustrates exactly why universities attempt to offer another remedy in addition to the court system for victims of sexual violence. If the answers were easy, there would be a clear path but there is not. Many sexual misconduct cases on college campuses would not provide the level of evidence required by the criminal process to proceed. Because the university system has a lower standard of proof does not mean that all trained faculty and students who serve on these boards lack the capacity to listen, ask relevant questions and reach a reasonable determination, and there is no credible research that indicates that college systems unfairly sanction the accused. In addition to a robust health education program, universities need to ensure that student conduct boards are adequately trained, that hearings are fair and respectful and that appropriate support and accommodations are provided to victims. Limiting their options by forcing college sexual assault victims to pursue a criminal path or nothing will do two things: reduce the reporting of this under-reported crime even further and reduce the chances of stopping a perpetrator.

    • Isobel Clinton

      This line of reasoning has gotten very old. I’m surprised to see it posted twice among these few comments in 2013. Rapes when prosecuted do indeed manage to reach convictions–far more than they used to when juries assumed that female victims were to blame, and judges agreed with them. We have a much better educated population now, thanks to decades of feminists in the schools, and in the court and public health systems, and thanks to female judges and prosecutors, victim-witness assistance and a number of other changes in the trial process to make it both less traumatic for victims and more just. More importantly though, rape is a felony crime. We do not expect “adequately trained student conduct boards” to be able to manage justice in the case of armed burglaries, murders, or arson. In whose interest is it better if they are left to handle rapes?

      • MelissaJane

        Spot on. It’s preposterous to suggest that college judicial boards should be trained to adequately adjudicate questions of rape, or of any other violent crime.

        It is also preposterous, Mark Sanford and Seen the Light, to continue insisting that the lack of the word “alleged” in front of every usage of the words accused or accuser is evidence of some sort of inability to comprehend or acknowledge that not every accusation of rape is true.

        • Seen The Light

          If its so preposterous, then, um, why aren’t said posters using the word “alleged”? Your denial is so odd, because you didn’t back it up whatsoever, AND you don’t address WHY posters don’t use the word “alleged”. It’s almost as if…you want us to just forget these inconvenient facts.

    • Mark Sanford

      I wrote a response to another commenter, Susan, prior to reading the above post. Anyone who read that previous comment and then reads the post from A Dean will see EXACTLY what I am talking about in my first post: certain individuals simply cannot tolerate the fact that a legitimate court of law robustly protects the rights of the accused. These individuals try to justify their trampling of those rights by making dubious claims that eschewing student judicial boards in favor of legitimate courts of law will lead to rapes being unreported. We actually have people arguing that less robust protections for the accused is something worthy of praise. We need to ensure that hearings are “fair and respectful”? And lowering the standard of evidence and stripping the accused of his presumption of innocence and his right to confront his accuser(two things not mentioned by A Dean of which the accused is often deprived, as anyone familiar with college rape proceedings well knows) somehow accomplishes that goal? Give me a break. As Isobel Clinton points out, we would never, ever tolerate a student judicial body handling accusations of murder or arson, so why are should they be allowed to handle rape cases? I think we all know the answer to that one. It has absolutely nothing to do with seeking justice and everything to do with politics.

      • George Arous

        “The mere act of pushing for a lowered burden of proof is almost an explicit admission that one believes the accuser never lies and the accused are always guilty.”

        Or, indeed, admission that actual guilt is beside the point.

    • Seen The Light

      “Limiting their options by forcing college sexual assault VICTIMS to
      pursue a criminal path or nothing will do two things: reduce the
      reporting of this under-reported crime even further and reduce the
      chances of stopping a perpetrator.”

      A Dean, your post is exactly why we need the police, and not college administators or self assigned board, to handle these. You didn’t say ALLEGED victim. You rushed to judgement and assumed victim status. You don’t know that, that is the entire point. You need a real investigation by trained law enforcement professionals.

      You lost the debate right there.

    • George Arous

      ‘A Dean,’

      This is what vigilantes always say. We can’t trust the cops and courts. The system doesn’t work. We’ll just do it ourselves.

  • Susan

    This is all well and good to say, but as a former sexual assault advocate on a college campus for many years, I can say definitively that District Attorneys do not want to take these cases, and often refuse to do so. Colleges offer something to survivors that the state isn’t willing to: a punishment of *some* kind, albeit much less meaningful than a criminal conviction. Deans may be out of their depth in hearing and adjudicating these cases, but what alternatives are there unless the criminal court system changes its approach to rape case adjudication?

    • Mark Sanford

      “Colleges offer something to the survivors”that the state doesn’t, a punishment of some kind…”

      That statement perfectly illuminates the problem with adjudicating rape cases outside of the legitimate legal system: the accuser is always presumed to be a heroic “survivor” and the accused is always presumed guilty and deserving of punishment of “some kind”. It is impossible to read the above quote without coming to the conclusion that the person who wrote it believes that the accused are always guilty and the accusers never lie. That attitude lies behind virtually every objection concerning proposals to have rape cases handled in a court of law, rather than adjudicated by a bunch of 19 year old kids. We are told it is OK if the accuser is stripped of his 6th Amendment rights, else the victim(the word alleged is never used) will be “victimized all over again.” It is taken as a matter of faith amongst those who defend the college judicial system that those accusing someone of rape never lie and the accused are always guilty. Those who insist upon having a bunch of immature teenagers sit in judgment of a potentially dangerous felon do so because they know that the real criminal justice system affords the accused a presumption of innocence and a right to confront the accuser, and they just can’t countenance such things. Claims that local DAs lack the will to try such cases serve as a smokescreen to hide the real problems they have with criminal courts: the fact that the burden of proof is on the “victim”. That the above commenter is willing to settle for a “less meaningful” punishment for a crime as horrible as rape is a tacit admission that many of the cases tried by student judiciaries simply do not meet that burden.

      • Seen The Light


    • Seen The Light

      how about an alternative where we maintain something called due process. Do you remember that? how would you feel if an innocent person’s life was ruined because of a false charge?

  • Seen The Light

    I have a question for the proponents of a lower burden of proof. How did that Duke Lacrosse case turn out? How many of you were so sure that woman wasn’t lying? Tawana Brawley? Shall we go on?

    • Duke 87

      Those particular Duke students were found not guilty. However, male Duke students have certainly been guilty of rape. I graduated from Duke in 1987 and knew 3 young women raped by our classmates. 1 of the rapists was banned from our dorm but received no other punishment. The others got away with the excuse of the time — “we’d been drinking” and happily went on with their lives. Sadly, I can’t say the same for their victims.

      • Seen The Light

        What is the relevance of some Duke students committing rape in the past in regards to the starting presumption of innocence in every case? Are you suggesting that we discard the legal presumption of innocence and proper legal investigating when dealing with a criminal matter as serious as rape? Please explain. One could retort that “some female students certainly have LIED about rape”. Should we use both statements? Both are correct, which is exactly the point.
        Dovetailing from that, I certainly haven’t, and I don’t think any of the other posters, have ever said something along the lines of denying that rape does happen on college campuses. Were you trying to create a strawman of an argument?

        Oh, those “particular” Duke students were more than found “not guilty” – they were declared “innocent” by the state AG, Roy Cooper. There was no rape or assault whatsoever. Your use of ambiguous language in regards to their obvious lack of guilt, only lends credence to the theory that college students accused of rape will likely face a prejudiced tribunal, if left to your desired system.

        Beyond all of that, you avoided a major question in my post that you responded to. So I will ask again, and an answer would be productive and show that you are debating in good faith:

        How many of you were so sure that woman wasn’t lying?

  • John Wesley Lowery

    This article begins with the flawed assumption that criminal prosecution and addressing behavior on campus are mutually exclusive. In an ideal world, both would happen, but that is a choice that should be left to the victim (as it is in other cases on campus).

    The author’s suggestion that “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.” is naive at best. These criminal cases can take years to resolve.

    The author also completely ignores the broader legal context in which colleges and universities operate. As one commenter noted, colleges and university have a legal obligation under Title IX to respond to allegations of sexual assault (which are a form of sexual assault). Following the author’s advice to basically take no meaningful action would expose the institution to considerable legal liability as it is the textbook definition of “deliberate indifference.”

    • Seen The Light

      your fails on a couple of points. First, your entire first paragraph is troubled. There is a difference between “criminal prosecution” and “addressing behavior on campus”. The latter is fine, as long as it doesn’t try and take on criminal matters they aren’t prepared for, just like a rape investigation. For you to confuse the two is your first failing. Second, your use of the word “victim” without the qualifier “alleged” in front of it is another failing. To be generous, I would imagine you are trying to say that a campus system would maintain a proper assumption of innocence. However, it is hard to extend you that benefit of a doubt when you can’t even process, in a post on the same topic mind you, the concept and use of the term “alleged” to signify that the charges aren’t proven yet.

      Furthermore, your bizarre theory that college HAVE to take on criminal matters at the expense of the true duty of law enforcement, is further revealing and desperate. It also employs straw men. For one instance, no one ever said no action should be taken. However, the action that should be taken lay in the hands of law enforcement first and foremost.

      To anything else would be gross misuse of power.

  • George Arous

    The notion that some gaggle of LibArts profs and admins can effectively and properly do the work of professional law enforcement officers and investigators is an insult to human sanity.

    Competence is not the issue, however. As with so many things, this is more about power than anything else.

    It’s about college bureaucrats seeking to go beyond loco parentis (which hardly applies anyway, as most students are legal adults) and create their own pocket societies, complete with courts and penal codes, in which they can rule over a captive, infantilized populace.

    Go over to F.I.R.E.’s website and check out the various so-called speech and conduct codes – often at taxpayer-funded, public schools – which these power-drunk Jacobins have cooked up. Many are vague, capricious and draconian enough to make Lavrenti Beria blush.

    This isn’t about keeping students safe or removing dangerous people from their community. It’s about campus Torquemadas giving us a perfect illustration of Wm. Buckley’s famous saying:

    “I’d rather trust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

  • Porchlight Counseling Services

    As the executive director of a Chicago-area non-profit organization that provides counseling exclusively to college rape survivors, I can tell you that these code of conduct hearings, by and large, are handled extremely poorly. One of our clients won a large lawsuit against a prestigious university for the way they handled her case. We have heard horror story after horror story. These hearings, which often include inadequately trained faculty and a lack of privacy, sensitivity and transparency, further traumatize survivors. Unfortunately, prosecutors are unwilling to take these cases to court because they see them as too tough to win – without a witness, physical evidence etc. So, where does that leave the student survivor? Not with justice, that’s for sure. When we speak up and demand justice for survivors, the courts will listen. The judges, who are elected officials, will listen. Right now, our silence speaks for us. Contact us if you are student who wants to talk about your experience with a university or if you are a Chicago-area or Lake County, Ill., student who needs help. (