Editorial: Preventing Sexual Assaults On College Campuses

The Connecticut Law Tribune

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One proposal would begin requiring college officials to begin accepting complaints about off-campus assaults from students. Currently, schools are only required to accept complaints if an assault happened on campus.

President Barack Obama's White House Council on Women and Girls just released a report of past and prospective administration actions titled "Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action" to highlight the epidemic of rapes on college campuses. Indeed, according to the report, "No one is more at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted than women at our nation's colleges and universities." One in five students has been assaulted, but just 12 percent of them report the violence. Because many attacks occur at parties, victims often are "abused while they're drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out or otherwise incapacitated."

Assailants are often serial offenders, it added, citing one study that found 7 percent of male students had admitted to committing or attempting rape, and nearly two-thirds of them said they had done so multiple times — six on average. Few of the assailants are arrested or prosecuted, largely because victims do not report the crimes and because of perceived police "biases" when reports are filed. According to a recent Department of Justice report, many victims chose not to involve law enforcement officials out of fear of being treated with hostility by the police and "anticipation that the police would not believe the incident was serious enough and/or would not want to be bothered with the incident." A National Institute of Justice study comparing "victims' health and well-being, psychological health and physical health" for those who reported their assaults to the criminal justice system against those who did not found that mental health outcomes are worse for victims who go through the criminal justice system. "[F]or most victims it's a very harrowing experience that leaves them feeling blamed, depressed, anxious and reluctant to seek further help," according to a study leader Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University professor and expert in the neurobiology of trauma. "Either they say, 'Never mind, forget it. I can't do this.' Or the police have interpreted her behavior [as being so] suspicious that they close the case before any investigation ever takes place."

In response to the council's report, Obama signed a memorandum creating a task force, giving it 90 days to recommend best practices for colleges to prevent or respond to assaults, and to ensure that they are complying with existing legal obligations. The task force, which includes the attorney general and the secretaries of the Education, Health and Human Services and Interior Departments, also was asked for proposals to raise awareness of colleges' records regarding assaults and officials' responses, and to see that federal agencies get involved when officials do not confront problems on their campuses.

Among the federal laws requiring colleges to address sexual assault are: Title IX; the renewed Violence Against Women Act; and the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to publicly report their crime statistics every year. Regrettably, schools have been investigated and fined for not accurately reporting crimes. Most notably, Eastern Michigan University was fined a then-record $357,000 for not revealing a student had been sexual assaulted and murdered in her dorm room. In October, Occidental College admitted that the school had failed to report two dozen sexual assault allegations in 2010 and 2011. Colleges have been known to underreport because of a university's public-image incentive to keep figures low, or because crimes can occur off campus and instead investigated by local police. Other times, schools put such suspects before a campus court whose proceedings are largely secret and not subjected to judicial review.

As we embark upon this legislative session, we should take the opportunity to ensure that our students get all the protections they deserve. California has proposed new legislation that would amend the state Education Code to require any report of a violent crime (willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery or aggravated assault) or hate crime received by a college campus law enforcement agency to be immediately reported to the appropriate police or sheriff's department unless the victim expressly requests that such a report not be passed along. If administrations fail to comply, they could be subject to liability damages for negligence. Ideally, we should also boost school resources, including funding longer and weekend health center hours and hiring more Title IX coordinators on campus.

Connecticut's women legislators — who comprise 30 percent of the General Assembly — are calling for changes, one of which would simplify documentation to which victims are currently entitled. Another proposal also would begin requiring college officials to begin accepting complaints about off-campus assaults from students. Currently schools are only required to accept complaints if an assault happened on campus. Still another proposal would provide every student with the right to remain anonymous when reporting an incident to the school. The focus is to help ensure that victims get access to services, keep police informed of a potential perpetrator on campus and increase the accuracy of reporting of assaults. Victims who decide to remain anonymous will not be able to seek criminal or academic sanctions against their assailant.

There are many more changes being proposed, and lawmakers are not waiting for Washington to do what's needed. In his State of the Union address, the president invited states to take charge and not waste time expecting Congress to behave responsibly. If the Violence against Women Act is any indication, this is good advice.

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