New York magazine reported on Sunday about a small town in Oregon that aims to demonstrate how colleges and universities can more effectively involve local law enforcement in order to better combat campus sexual assault. In light of colleges’ continuing struggles with sexual assault and the raging debate about how (and if) law enforcement should be involved, the article is a must-read. It suggests that when it comes to sexual assault on campus, foregoing the criminal justice system instead of reforming it is a mistake.
Ashland, Oregon, is home to Southern Oregon University (SOU). Working from data suggesting that most sex crimes are committed by serial offenders, Ashland Police Detective Carrie Hull worked with SOU victims’ advocate Angela Fleischer to find out what deters complainants from utilizing the criminal justice system to get perpetrators off the streets and keep the community safer. They developed a program called “You Have Options,” which provides resources and support for complainants. At the same time, Hull aims to give prosecutors triable cases by gathering better evidence. Having nothing more than the accuser’s and accused’s testimony to consider reflects “a very bad investigation,” she said.
The article tells the story of Niki, an SOU student who says she learned from her former boyfriend that he had raped her while she was unconscious. Working with Fleischer and Hull, she successfully brought her complaint to the police, reaching her desired result—her ex-boyfriend was offered a plea bargain—in about three months.
FIRE believes that involving law enforcement is essential to ensure that campus sexual assault cases are adjudicated and resolved properly. As FIRE’s Joe Cohn wrote in The Hill in September:
Policymakers need to recognize that college judiciaries simply aren’t equipped to handle allegations of felony misconduct. Colleges can provide counseling, resources, preventative education, and academic accommodations. But they lack the procedures to reach just results and the power required to properly punish those found guilty. Instead of creating an alternative to the criminal justice system, legislators should devote their efforts to fixing law enforcement’s handling of sexual assault.
FIRE is not alone in holding this view. In February, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network sent a letter to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault arguing that it is “imperative that colleges and universities partner with local law enforcement around these crimes—from the time of report to resolution.” After all, RAINN noted, “[i]t would never occur to anyone to leave the adjudication of a murder in the hands of a school’s internal judicial process.” Writing for The Huffington Post, Student Press Law Center attorney Adam Goldstein detailed Oklahoma State University’s failures in handling an allegation of sexual assault, arguing that the result demonstrated “how much can go wrong when you let a bunch of amateur investigators pretend to do the jobs of police and courts.”
Politicians have voiced support for involving law enforcement, as well. Last June, in a roundtable discussion on sexual assault, Senator Claire McCaskill spoke in defense of the thousands of professionals nationwide working through the criminal justice system to stop sexual assault. Later that month, during a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse explained to Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, the necessity of universities working with law enforcement in order to better protect students.
In addition to providing a community with real protection against violent criminals, the criminal justice system has resources and safeguards in place to help ensure innocent students are not punished: court cases are governed by rules of evidence, accused individuals have the right to subject witnesses to cross-examination, investigators have forensics training, and everyone is entitled to an attorney, for example.
A poll conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov in February revealed that although many distrust law enforcement to adequately handle complaints of sexual assault, a greater percentage of people distrust colleges and universities to do so. As FIRE has noted before, no one is happy with how colleges are handling sexual assault—not victims, not the accused, not parents or loved ones, not administrators, not university counsel, not defense attorneys, not civil liberties advocates, and not the general public.
According to New York magazine, “Since You Have Options launched officially in 2013, the number of reports in Ashland has increased by 106 percent.” (The assumption is not that crime has gone up but that more victims are willing to report the crimes.) FIRE hopes that college administrators and police departments will look to Ashland and use it to inspire them to find ways to ensure that allegations of sexual assault will be brought to the system best equipped to deal with them—the criminal courts. That kind of change would make campuses and communities safer without denying students accused of sexual assault due process rights.