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RAINN Asks White House Task Force to ‘De-emphasize Internal Judicial Boards’ in Sexual Assault Cases

By March 19, 2014

The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) sent a 16-page letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (PDF) late last month, offering recommendations on how to address the serious problem of sexual assault on college and university campuses. In its letter, RAINN wrote that it is “imperative that colleges and universities partner with local law enforcement around these crimes – from the time of report to resolution” to ensure that alleged sexual assaults are handled by trained and competent law enforcement professionals.

The letter stresses the need to “treat [on-campus sexual assaults] as the felonies that they are,” and warns that “we will not make the progress we hope” for without doing so:

The FBI, for purposes of its Uniform Crime Reports, has a hierarchy of crimes — a ranking of violent crimes in order of seriousness. Murder, of course, ranks first. Second is rape. It would never occur to anyone to leave the adjudication of a murder in the hands of a school’s internal judicial process. Why, then, is it not only common, but expected, for them to do so when it comes to sexual assault? We need to get to a point where it seems just as inappropriate to treat rape so lightly.

While we respect the seriousness with which many schools treat such internal processes, and the good intentions and good faith of many who devote their time to participating in such processes, the simple fact is that these internal boards were designed to adjudicate charges like plagiarism, not violent felonies. The crime of rape just does not fit the capabilities of such boards. They often offer the worst of both worlds: they lack protections for the accused while often tormenting victims.

This is a point my colleagues at FIRE and other students’ rights advocates have made before. As the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country, RAINN is a substantial voice in discussions surrounding sexual assault on campus, and FIRE commends the organization for making this important argument.

As an illustration of just how widespread the problems with the current system are, RAINN’s letter also cites the dozens of recent complaints filed against schools alleging inadequate responses to reports of sexual assault:

In just recent months, reports of mishandled cases at USC, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, University of Montana, Vanderbilt University, Occidental College, Penn State University, the University of Connecticut, the University of North Carolina, and Berkeley have flooded the Department of Education. In fact, in 2013 alone, the department’s Office on Civil Rights received 30 complaints against colleges and universities around these issues – a 76% increase over the prior year, when 17 complaints were filed. The complaints say the schools violated students’ civil rights by not thoroughly investigating sexual assaults, and failed to obey Clery Act mandates around tracking and disclosure of these crimes. And while significant fines have been levied against a handful of institutions (notably a $165,000 fine imposed on Yale University), enforcement of Clery Act requirements and response to on-campus claims of sexual assault has been uneven.

The sheer volume of complaints suggests that the problem isn’t just a few outliers struggling to correctly handle sexual assault complaints, but rather that educational institutions are simply not equipped to respond effectively to violent crimes.

Click over to RAINN’s website to read its press release and the full text of its letter to the White House Task Force (PDF), and be sure to check out the letter FIRE wrote to the Task Force (PDF) on February 28.