Opinon: Why colleges should report sex crimes, pronto, to police and prosecutors

Chicago Tribune

Sexual assault has doubtlessly occurred on college campuses at least as long as there have been coeducational institutions.

But only in recent years have schools, students and parents begun to grasp just how prevalent it is. A recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 20 percent of female students say they have been sexually assaulted—as do 5 percent of men. Some people argue with the polling, but these attacks are a genuine problem.

Universities have been forced to address it, not always with satisfactory results. Most victims don’t report the attacks, and most schools don’t conduct surveys to determine the extent of the problem.

A Columbia University undergraduate carried a mattress around campus, and in the commencement ceremony, to dramatize her alleged rape by a fellow undergraduate who was cleared in a university investigation. The accused has sued Columbia for sex discrimination under the federal law known as Title IX, arguing that it failed to support him as it would have a woman in comparable circumstances.

Thanks to Title IX, the federal government has a role in how these matters are addressed. However, a survey commissioned by a U.S. Senate subcommittee found that “many institutions are failing to comply with the law and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students.” Congress is considering bills to impose new rules in an effort to reduce the number of attacks and help those who have been victimized.

A Senate bill sponsored by Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., with bipartisan sponsorship, would bring about some valuable changes. One is to require every school to survey students every two years—and to publish the results. It would mandate minimum levels of training for school staffers responsible for investigating accusations and assisting victims. It would bar athletic departments from handling complaints about athletes. It would create financial penalties intended to provide a real impetus for universities to comply. All of this is good.

What the bill lacks is a requirement or strong inducement for college officials to turn sexual assault complaints over to the people with the most resources and expertise in such matters: police and prosecutors.

A House bill called the Safe Campus Act would assure both the accuser and the accused the right to hire lawyers at their own expense for disciplinary proceedings; those accused would also have a right to see the evidence against them.

Most notable, and controversial, is a provision that would encourage college officials and security forces to report these alleged crimes to police. If an alleged victim declines to deal with law enforcement, the school would be barred from conducting its own investigation.

Some schools, fearful about their reputations or their potential liability if a victim sues, resist immediately turning over reports of serious crimes to law enforcement personnel. And the American Council on Education, representing some 1,700 colleges, has expressed concerns that some victims would choose to do nothing rather than deal with civil authorities.

Granted, every crime victim everywhere weighs the same worry—Will I regret engaging the criminal justice system?—before he or she calls the cops. Yet these incidents, first and foremost, involve profound allegations that a perpetrator has violated not extralegal campus creeds, but our state or federal criminal laws.

The advantages of involving police and prosecutors from the outset are obvious: They have forensic resources, investigative skills, extensive experience and legal powers that colleges lack. All of which makes it easier for civil authorities to establish the truth about these incidents—and to impose consequences. A college can do nothing more than expel a rapist, who may then commit new crimes, while police can take him off the streets. This bill won the endorsement of the National District Attorneys Association.

It’s also vital for police and prosecutors to handle these cases with dispatch and sensitivity, which would encourage more victims to report these crimes—and not only by students.

Young women who don’t attend college actually have a higher chance of being sexually assaulted than those who do enroll. But friendships and social media can educate everyone in this age cohort about which police and prosecutors treat these cases seriously, and which ones don’t.

The bottom line here is that universities and colleges have to do more to address the dangers of sexual assault and protect students. They also have to recognize that they can’t—shouldn’t—do that job alone.