What Can Prevent Campus Rape? Ctd

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

A reader writes:

I have been involved in student affairs at a college campus in some capacity for over twenty years.  I have some, not a lot of, experience with sexual assault investigations.  Police should always be notified, and it is their job to conduct investigations according to their established procedures.  These types of investigations are not the purview of academic institutions.  On this we agree.

However, to suggest that academic institutions have no role is mistaken.  All colleges have their policies regarding sexual assault and, while the police may not have enough evidence to bring charges, they can determine that a policy has been violated and that this violation merits sanction.  Just because the police may not be able to gather the necessary evidence does not mean that institution cannot address the matter for common good of the college community.

You make a persuasive case for the limited impact (if at all) of abstinence programs of many sorts.  However, simply providing the instruction about how to have sex is not enough.  Young people also need to learn and understand how the male and female bodies work.  For males it is often easy to attain physical pleasure.  For females it is often not easy.  Failure to understand this important difference risks contributing negatively to the emotional dimension of sexual relationships that we too often refuse to discuss.

Another expert on the subject:

I am a college student affairs administrator and work at a private university in the US.  I have worked directly for about a decade with the issues you brought up in your recent post on sexual assault on college campuses.  In my current role, I serve as a “Deputy Title IX Coordinator” (a title that is becoming more frequent on campuses nationwide) where I have the responsibility of overseeing our investigations into reports of sexual assault (in addition to sexual harassment, partner violence and stalking, which all fall under the same policies and regulations) as well as the staff that are responsible for investigations and adjudicating cases, should they get to that point.  As I am at a smaller, private institution, this is just one of the hats I wear as part of my position (which also include oversight of all student conduct issues and other student affairs initiatives).

There are a few points that you brought up that I’d like to respond to.  Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience, but I have issues with the perceived assumption that colleges are acting in bad faith.

Speaking as a student affairs professional, those of us in this line of work are doing it precisely because we enjoy working with students.  We see them at their best and at their worst, after exceptional achievements and after terrible traumas.  In any sexual assault allegation, I have been tasked with investigating, adjudicating or overseeing, and my first concern has been student welfare (of all parties). And the professionals I work with conduct their duties to the best of their abilities.  Incidents are not “kept quiet” for PR purposes, as we have an obligation to the parties to protect their privacy (though there are exceptions which may trigger community notification of an incident).

Also, unless the victim has requested it, universities cannot involve law enforcement outside limited exceptions.  I don’t see why we’d want to change this.  It’s important to keep that decision with the victim and give them the opportunity to make their own decision.

In situations I’ve been involved with, none of the students who have been dismissed/expelled for sexual assault have ever been charged with crime.  This fact in no way shakes my confidence that the university did the right thing in each situation.  Our campuses were safer without those students, something I say unapologetically. What I don’t understand is why people are shocked that these disparities happen.  In conversations with colleagues at my current institution, they can go back almost 20 years and note that not a single sexual assault allegation a student has brought to the local police has resulted in a charge, never mind a conviction (we do not have a sworn police department on my campus and rely on the local PD when an arrest has to be made).  Yet people are surprised when the university is asked to take steps, or why a victim feels more comfortable discussing these issues with a college administrator or counselor who will actually listen and provide options, as opposed to getting poor treatment at the local PD (of which I have plenty of stories).

Which leads to another area of disagreement: the belief that if something is a crime, then it should only be dealt with by law enforcement.  Putting aside the assumption of law enforcement expertise in incidents of sexual violence that I do not share, colleges and universities deal with students who commit crimes all the time.  Underage alcohol possession is a crime.  Two roommates who get into a fistfight is a crime.  Someone stealing a video game from a residence hall room is a crime.  Giving alcohol to minors is a crime.

The list goes on an on, and universities have been dealing with these issues for decades and longer.  What makes sexual assault different?  Is it the discomfort for all involved?  I know plenty of universities, especially “elite” universities, would like to get out of the sexual assault response business because it’s unpleasant, but why would a university provide all sots of services and assurances of a safe community but just stop at sexual assault?  Keep in mind that this obligation to address student behavior is not a new thing, and has been supported by state and federal courts for decades.  There is even a professional association for student affairs professionals who do this work, the Association for Student Conduct Administration.  I’d like to direct you to an oft-cited federal court opinion from the 1960s that other courts cite as a foundation for this obligation, the General Order on Judicial Standards of Procedure and Substance in Review of Student Discipline in Tax Supported Institutions of Higher Education.  It says in particular:

The discipline of students in the educational community is, in all but the cases of irrevocable expulsion, a part of the teaching process.  In the case of irrevocable expulsion for misconduct, the process is not punitive or deterrent in the criminal law sense, but the process is rather the determination that the student is unqualified to continue as a member of the educational community.  Even then, the disciplinary process is not the equivalent to the criminal law process of federal or state criminal law.  For, while the expelled student may suffer damaging effects, sometimes irreparable, to his educational, social, and economic future, he or she may not be imprisoned, fined, disenfranchised, or subjected to probationary supervision.  The attempted analogy of student discipline to criminal proceedings against adults and juveniles is not sound.

I can agree, however, that the web of regulations is becoming incredibly difficult to navigate, particularly at smaller institutions that do not have separate offices that handle diversity and equity, regulatory compliance, etc.  I have become the de facto compliance officer on my campus, because I have a good knowledge of our obligations, speak about them effectively, and my pre-higher education background.  While you listed many of the federal mandates universities are dealing with (Title IX, VAWA, the Clery Act, FERPA, etc.) and one that may come our way if it makes it through the legislative meat grinder (CASA), keep in mind that several states have individiually enacted their own laws (for many of the same political reasons your post assigned to the feds).  At least four states that I know of have either enacted or are looking to enact their own legislation (CA, CT, NJ, and NY).  This, plus proposed increased enforcement, makes our jobs much more difficult.  I’ve been involved in an OCR investigation.  It’s an incredibly difficult experience, and when OCR sets up shop, it makes it almost impossible to do your actual job, because of the amount of time and amount of data they demand.

Sorry for the long-winded response, but while I cannot write from the perspective of a survivor or an accused student, I can definitely write from the perspective of someone who is part of this issue, and being asked to administer it.  Thank you and Andrew.  As a long-time reader, this provides a good reminder to renew my subscription.