Latest News & Current Events

Time to Act - 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in college

Back in February a conference on Sexual Assault On Campus, hosted by the University of Virginia was filled to capacity by college presidents and others.  The White House formed a task force, in response to the widespread dissatisfaction with the way college campuses handle cases of sexual assault.

This week the White House released new guidelines to help victims of that violence and improve the way schools handle such cases. Campus sexual assaults are notoriously underreported, and schools' disciplinary processes vary widely.

The suggestions provide colleges with basic guidelines for dealing with sexual assault cases; it also sets up a national reporting system that asks schools to survey their students about their experiences.

The report is titled "Not Alone," which is also the name of a new website the administration created as a resource for schools and the victims of sexual assault. Its work reflects contributions from several federal agencies, including the Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Sexual assault victims should be able to speak in confidentiality to a trained advocate who would not be required "to report all the details of an incident to school officials," as some colleges have mandated in recent years.
  • "Questions about the survivor's sexual history with anyone other than the alleged perpetrator should not be permitted."
  • An accuser and the accused "should not be allowed to personally cross-examine each other."
  • Calling the intervention of bystanders one of the "most promising prevention strategies," the report calls for encouraging men and women to act in such cases.
  • The new website also includes a national "school-by-school enforcement map" that marks resolved cases that involved the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

The federal government sent a further message that it's taking sexual harassment on college campuses seriously. Education officials released the names of 55 schools facing investigation for their handling of sexual abuse allegations.

Colleges find themselves increasingly pressed to act as pseudo-courts. Schools have been under fire for discounting complaints, mismanaging cases and meting out punishments that look more like slaps on the wrist. By all accounts, there's plenty of room for improvement.

Still, college discipline procedures can make certain allowances that courts cannot, and school panels can step in when an alleged victim is wary of going to court.

In many ways, colleges have less power than law enforcement. They can't subpoena evidence or witnesses, for example.

In other ways, colleges have a lot more leeway. For example, while prosecutors routinely drop criminal cases that would be hard to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt," campuses have a lower bar. They need only a "preponderance of the evidence," which means that an offense was more likely than not to have occurred.

Also, in the courts, the onus is on the accuser to prove a crime, but campuses can put the burden on the accused to prove they actually had sexual consent.

Adjudicating rape cases — and ensuring a safe learning environment — is absolutely within the purview of colleges. Colleges used to fear getting sued for expelling a student for sexual assault. Now, they also worry about getting sued if they don't.

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