The cover story of this week’s issue of The Nation details the many problems with how colleges and universities are dealing with sexual assault allegations—including the question of whether adjudication of such serious crimes should be left to educational institutions in the first place. Michelle Goldberg writes:
There are three major and sometimes conflicting criticisms of the school disciplinary process for sexual assault cases. First, to some—though by no means all—victims’ advocates, treating rape cases as internal disciplinary matters to be handled by amateurs trivializes a serious felony. In a February letter to the Obama administration, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s leading anti-rape group, wrote: “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…when it comes to sexual assault?”
Second, many victims find campus disciplinary boards more invested in protecting the school’s reputation than in seeking justice—one reason that sixty colleges, Occidental among them, are now being investigated by the Education Department for their handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.
Finally, defense attorneys and civil libertarians—as well as rape-skeptical conservative pundits—condemn the boards as kangaroo courts in which the accused are denied ordinary due process.
In other words, nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the status quo. With regard to a solution, victims’ rights advocates cite problems with the criminal justice system, arguing that victims can’t rely on that system for justice or even support. On the other hand, as FIRE’s Robert Shibley argues, the campus disciplinary system is not an adequate replacement for the criminal justice system:
They’re trying to set up a much lower-quality shadow justice system on campus. … The central problem is that it’s an extremely serious offense—a felony offense—being handled by a group of people who aren’t trained and aren’t necessarily competent.
RAINN founder and president Scott Berkowitz points out that if sexual assault is dealt with only by campus authorities, serial criminals will remain free to attack women off campus. David Lisak, a psychologist who advises universities on how to respond to sexual assault on campus, proposes that universities address this problem by having campus detectives especially trained to handle sexual assault complaints, rather than leaving the cases to administrators.
With many interests to consider and high stakes for everyone involved, there is no quick or easy answer to these problems. Recognizing the complexity of the issue, though, is a necessary first step, and Goldberg takes a thoughtful, nuanced look at the question.
Read the rest of her article on The Nation’s website.