05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Campus Disciplinary Process the Wrong Place to Punish Violent Crime

I don't know where you go to college, but I'm going to guess the college has an internal disciplinary process that is designed to punish things like plagiarism or keeping a cat in the dorm in violation of housing rules.

But it's also possible that your institution's disciplinary process is being used to punish violent crimes, including physical assaults and rapes.

While federal law (the Clery Act, if you're wondering) requires campus crime information to be disclosed by campus security offices, and statistical information about crime to be disclosed by an institution, another federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA) prevents schools from disclosing information maintained by the institution that identifies a student.

Because campus disciplinary proceedings result in records that identify students and are maintained by an institution, and because those records are not in the possession of campus security, federal law can be interpreted as preventing the school from disclosing the specifics of what goes on in these proceedings.

When it comes to plagiarism, that's probably okay. My personal safety on campus isn't really threatened by academic dishonesty. When it comes to something more serious--say, sexual assault--that's not okay.

If I were a student, I'd have some questions about sexual assaults on campus. For example, where did they take place? What time of day did most of them occur? And is the person sitting right next to me in Biology one of the perpetrators?

They probably are still on campus, after all. The Boston Globe recently reported that out of 240 alleged sexual assaults on area campuses, four led to expulsions. I'm not a mathe-magician, but even allowing for misreporting, that still sounds like a lot of perpetrators of sexual assault who go on to graduate with their victims--and that's out of the ones that actually get reported.

If you wanted to find a rational reason why this information is not disclosed, it typically goes something like this: these campus disciplinary procedures aren't courts of law. They don't offer enough procedural safeguards to the accused, and being found guilty of the wrongdoing by a campus disciplinary panel shouldn't be interpreted as guilt in a court of law.

I agree completely. While it may be within an academic panel's ability to measure the content of paper A and determine that much was cribbed from paper B, I wouldn't give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the forensics of violent crime. To me, that is all the more reason that these disciplinary panels shouldn't be trying to discipline serious crimes.

If someone is accused of sexual assault, we need to know if they are guilty. We also need to know if they were wrongly accused. And we cannot leave that responsibility to a panel of people who have no obligation to report their findings to the public, or even to be right in their outcome.

Sexual assault in particular isn't the kind of crime that offenders commit once and never again. Even if we believe in the reformed rapist, that reform is unlikely to happen if the individual is never punished for the crime.

The safety of every student on campus depends on the correct identification and punishment of violent criminals. While the justice system is far from perfect, it is also far better equipped for that task than an internal disciplinary process.