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Bennett L. Gershman

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Campus "Justice" Shows a Culture of Complacency

Posted: 11/15/11 03:00 PM ET

Reflecting on the Penn State scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged serial rapes of children in the football locker room and showers, one is struck by the institutional complacency over such horrendous crimes: silence by eyewitnesses, failure of campus leaders to report the crimes, and a cover-up by high university officials. But something else about the scandal needs to be considered. If a culture of complacency and cover-up exists at Penn State with respect to the commission of such horrendous crimes by a prominent member of the Penn State "family," what happens when a not-prominent female student complains to university officials about being sexually assaulted on campus? If an institutional culture can so casually ignore Sandusky's young victims, wouldn't that same culture likely ignore serious complaints of rape -- indeed, serial rapes -- by male students?

In fact, from anecdotal and empirical reports, there appears to exist on many college campuses a judicial disciplinary system that critics claim is dysfunctional and unfair: judicial proceedings administered in secret, panel members with irreconcilable conflicts of interest, procedural and evidentiary rules that are standardless, and punishment that most often is a slap on the wrist. College administrators defend these toothless proceedings by asserting that "there is nothing in our mission about justice," and that student disciplinary proceedings aren't meant to punish students but rather to provide a "teachable moment." Consider in that light the following cases:

  • A young woman enrolled at Virginia Tech was repeatedly raped by two varsity football players. One of the assailants M boasted that he "liked to get girls drunk and [f___] them." The victim filed a complaint under the University's Sexual Assault Policy. The University's Judicial Committee found insufficient evidence to punish one of the athletes, but found M guilty not of "sexual assault" but of "using abusive language," and suspended him for two semesters. On appeal, the provost set aside the punishment as "excessive."

  • At Miami University of Ohio, a male student was accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old freshman while she was sleeping. A university disciplinary board found him responsible for sexually assaulting her but did not suspend him; they placed him on "student conduct probation." He would have been suspended for underage drinking, or academic dishonesty. The proceedings were secret, and nobody, not even his mother, knew about the case.

  • At the University of South Florida, a freshman woman was kidnapped and raped by a male student. The student then shot her brother and killed himself. Despite three previous accusations by female students that he had stalked or assaulted them, he had never been suspended by the campus judicial system. Two years earlier, the university covered up another rape complaint against a star basketball player, and ignored three other assault complaints by women against the same athlete.

  • At Harvard, a male medical student was accused of sexual assaulting three female classmates, and was also caught watching women in the residence hall showers. The university referred him for psychiatric counseling, and a disciplinary committee of senior faculty advised him to "take a year off." His misconduct appears to have been minimized because of glowing reviews he received by the university for helping poor people in Africa.

  • At the University of Georgia, members of a fraternity beat up a nineteen-year-old man outside the fraternity house. An investigation by the university's "fraternity advisors" found that the fraternity members held a meeting to coordinate their stories pending an investigation. University administrators threw out the case before it could be heard by a student court that would be open to press coverage.

  • At the University of California, several male students were found to have committed multiple sexual assaults on freshmen women, but were allowed to transfer to other state campuses with clean records. The women were harassed and threatened during the investigation, and were denied the right to know the results of their complaints.

These cases are not atypical. A recent report by The Center for Public Integrity states that "students deemed 'responsible' for alleged sexual assaults on college campuses can face little or no consequence for their acts." Indeed, the behavior of administrators of college disciplinary boards appears to parallel the behavior of Penn State officials during the period of Sandusky's malevolent conduct -- don't look too closely, don't say anything, and protect the university at all costs from bad publicity and liability. Keeping the lid on a potentially disastrous scandal is one way for big-time schools to protect the school's reputation, as with the notorious basketball scandal at Binghamton University recently. A lax student disciplinary system accomplishes the same result: it preserves the school's reputation, protects athletic departments and prominent athletes, keeps wealthy alums happy, and does not hurt local businesses which thrive on student drinking.

Also, public law enforcement agencies far too often look the other way when a student complaint is made, and are much too willing to defer to campus justice. To be sure, the Penn State police did investigate a complaint in 1998 about Sandusky, and turned it over to the local district attorney, who declined to prosecute. However, many, perhaps most of the serious complaints never reach campus police or off-campus law enforcement officials; these complaints are routed directly to college administrators who have an incentive not to report or investigate the allegation. That is exactly what happened in 2002, when a graduate student witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the football locker room shower. He reported it to Joe Paterno, the football coach, who reported it to the athletic director. And there the reporting stopped.

With the Penn State case now on virtually every college and university's radar screen, covering up crimes of sexual assault won't be easy, or tolerated. The Department of Education has announced it will monitor much more closely public disclosure and reporting requirements of crimes on college campuses involving sexual assault and abuse. The Department's Civil Rights division also has announced its intention to monitor more closely how universities that accept federal money deal with cases involving sexual violence and whether the university is administering a judicial disciplinary system that fails to expel student offenders but allows them to remain on campus, in fraternities, and on sports teams.

To be sure, many administrators of college judicial systems behave professionally and responsibly. But campus judicial systems, and campus police, are under considerable institutional pressure to look the other way. But if a college culture tolerates and fails to properly investigate, adjudicate, and punish serious sexual misconduct, then it debases campus life, makes a farce of campus "conduct codes," and may leave the college's reputation in ruins.