Polis: ‘I Went Too Far’ With Sex Assault Expulsion Talk

September 16, 2015

By Nick Coltrain at The Coloradoan

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis walked back his comments on expelling those accused of sexual assault on college campus, saying he “went too far” with a “poor choice of words.”

In a post on Medium.com, Polis wrote that he doesn’t support expelling innocent students, but reiterated that campus judicial systems need to operate separate from criminal courts because of the traumatic nature of sexual assault and the need to act quickly.

“I went too far by implying that I support expelling innocent students from college campuses, which is something neither I nor other advocates of justice for survivors of sexual assault support,” Polis, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Collins, wrote.

But keeping the matter solely in the courts is a “deeply dangerous idea that demonstrates a cursory and superficial understanding of the issue,” he wrote. His district includes both the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.

“I regret that my gaffe is now being used by some to advocate for a dangerous and myopic policy that would make our college campuses less safe,” he wrote.

He cites “decades of research and case histories” of how rape survivors are unlikely to report their assaults to police, with reasons including fear they lack proof, retaliation or simply not knowing if their trauma constituted assault. The cases can also drag on, adding to the victim’s grief.

The process for campus assault, meanwhile, uses a lower standard of “preponderance of evidence,” meaning evidence shows the student more likely than not is guilty. The process also allows the university to act swiftly in separating the accused and the accuser to prevent a hostile environment.

“Our criminal justice system moves slowly,” Polis wrote. “Campus assault cases are designed to move efficiently so that survivors, as a basic matter of campus safety and to prevent additional trauma, don’t have to cross paths with their assailant on campus for an extended period of time.”

Polis, speaking Sept. 10 at a congressional higher education subcommittee meeting on preventing and responding to sexual assault on college campus, suggested creating a lower legal standard of evidence for public universities than currently used. He was speaking with Joseph Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Polis pushed back on Cohn’s testimony that the preponderance of evidence standard could fail the constitutional test of due process. The congressman argued for an even lower standard of likelihood of guilt.

“I mean, if there’s 10 people that have been accused and, under a reasonable likelihood standard, maybe one or two did it, seems better to get rid of all 10 people,” Polis said. “We’re not talking about depriving them of life or liberty, we’re talking about their transfer to another university, for crying out loud.”

CSU spokesperson Mike Hooker wrote in a statement on Sept. 11 that the university has the ability to hold students accountable for violations to its student conduct code and trained staff reviews the cases individually. It also would likely deny an applicant that was found responsible for sexual assault at another university.

In the 2014-15 academic year, eight students went through CSU’s judicial process for accusations of non-consensual sexual contact or assault and seven were held responsible. Hooker said federal law prevents disclosing the individual disciplinary actions, but that CSU may remove students found responsible for breaking its code of conduct.