Prosecutors’ Group Backs Changes to College Campus Sexual Assault Investigations

August 14, 2015

By Valerie Bauerlein at The Wall Street Journal

A national prosecutors’ group is backing a congressional proposal that would upend the handling of campus sexual assault cases, saying universities need to consult police before adjudicating and punishing potentially criminal offenses.

The National District Attorneys Association said it supports the recently introduced Safe Campus Act, which would require police investigation of sexual assault claims before schools begin disciplinary proceedings against accused students. The mandatory-reporting requirement would be a sea change from the current practice, as schools commonly handle allegations of sexual assault independently.

“You have to take away the whole perception that academic institutions are on their own separate island,” said Michael Ramos,the association’s president-elect and district attorney of the County of San Bernardino, Calif.

The Safe Campus Act also would provide the right to a lawyer for accused and accusing students. Some students face life-altering consequences like expulsion after quasi-judicial hearings where they had no legal counsel, Mr. Ramos said.

Rape survivors’ groups said mandatory-reporting rules would silence victims, and schools are already required to provide trained advocates.

“This bill will make campuses less safe,” said Fatima Goss Graves,senior vice president of the National Women’s Law Center. “I don’t know many people who work closely with survivors of sexual assault who would rally behind it.”

The Safe Campus Act, introduced by Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon and Texas Reps. Kay Granger and Pete Sessions, all Republicans, is one of many changes to campus sexual assault policy under consideration in Congress. A leading bipartisan proposal is sponsored by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and would require regular campus climate surveys and provide amnesty for offenses like underage drinking for those reporting assault.

Colleges and universities have been through several years of broadchanges in sexual-assault policy, spurred by student activists and the Obama administration.

In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter to every U.S. college, the Education Department told schools they risked federal investigation and financial penalties if they didn’t protect students from sexual harassment and violence under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires gender equity.

Some backers of the Safe Campus Act say federal rules have put universities in the position of investigating, prosecuting, defending and judging cases. The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee said the University of Virginia wrongfully suspended Greek activities after a Rolling Stone magazine article described an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house. A police investigation later found no evidence of a gang rape and Rolling Stone retracted the article.

“What’s becoming clear is that Congress recognizes the status quo is broken,” said Kevin O’Neill, the committee’s executive director. “Anybody who’s defending the status quo is going to be fairly disappointed.”

Civil-liberties advocates say mandatory-reporting requirements and the right to legal counsel are a step in the right direction. “At all campuses, there’s the question of the competency of campus amateurs to investigate and come up with reasonable findings,” said Joseph Cohn, policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Ms. Goss Graves said it is wrong to conflate campus administrative hearings with criminal trials. An administrative hearing isn’t about establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but about ensuring students have access to education without sexual harassment and violence, she said. “They’re looking for different outcomes,” she said.

The American Council on Education, representing 1,700 schools, hasn’t taken a position on the Safe Campus Act. The council told Congress in a May letter about separate legislation that schools have been “reluctant” to agree to mandatory reporting “because some victims prefer that local and state police not be involved.”

The Education Department declined to comment.

Schools: University of Virginia