The Problems with Addressing Campus Sexual Assault

Readers have no doubt heard by now all about the controversy surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, particularly at the University of Virginia, about which Rolling Stone published this piece, and then essentially retracted it.

Emily Yoffe has an important piece up at Slate about how we’re trying to address sexual assault:

Sexual assault at colleges and universities is indeed a serious problem. The attention it’s receiving today—on campus, at the White House, in the media—is a direct result of the often callous and dismissive treatment of victims. For too long, women who were assaulted on campus and came forward were doubted or dismissed, and the men responsible were given a mild rebuke or none at all. Those who commit serious sexual crimes on campus must be held to account.

Unfortunately, under the worthy mandate of protecting victims of sexual assault, procedures are being put in place at colleges that presume the guilt of the accused. Colleges, encouraged by federal officials, are instituting solutions to sexual violence against women that abrogate the civil rights of men.

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Schools that hold hearings to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct allow the accuser and the accused to be accompanied by legal counsel. But…many schools ban lawyers from speaking to their clients (only notes can be passed). During these proceedings, the two parties are not supposed to question or cross examine each other, a prohibition recommended by the federal government in order to protect the accuser. And by federal requirement, students can be found guilty under the lowest standard of proof: preponderance of the evidence, meaning just a 51 percent certainty is all that’s needed for a finding that can permanently alter the life of the accused.

The “rights of the accused here” is not some anti-feminist rape apologist line. No, it’s very important.

How is it that we can have a country that’s both too permissive of sexual assault and too eager to punish, or too sloppy about punishing the men accused of committing it in college? Well, that’s because dealing with sexual assault is really hard, particularly when the place where it takes place is a large and wealthy institution with numerous constituents to avoid offending.

Sexual assault on college campuses, a culture that ignores it and accepts bad sexual interaction as normal, and academic administrators that avoid addressing it because it’s bad for public relations–all of these things are trouble.

But justice and legal rights, in particular the rights of the accused to defend themselves fairly and honestly, are essential things to protect. There are no crimes so heinous that we should ignore the rights of people to defend themselves.

Campus sexual cases are generally funneled through the university justice system, which does not exist to protect the rights of students, but to protect the reputation of the institutions where the violations occur.

There’s nothing wrong with an internal justice system; it makes a lot of sense to deal with alcohol or noise violations internally because outside no one cares. But when we’re talking about real crimes that ruin people’s lives, campus justice doesn’t really work. Both the standards of evidence and the punishments available within university discipline are nothing like real courts. That’s probably why this is becoming a mess.

There’s no way for us to do this easily. It’s going to be very hard to address this problem. Get ready. A whole lot more people are going to be very offended if we decide to seriously confront this issue.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer