April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) -- a time to revisit the issue of sexual assault, a persistent problem in America today. The issue is particularly troublesome at colleges and universities where, according to the National Institute of Justice, an astonishing 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men will fall victim to a completed or attempted sexual assault at some point during their college years.This is an epidemic; that it happens at the institutions we entrust with our young people's academic, personal and professional development makes it that much worse. Yet still, many campuses resist bringing in the outside experts needed to effectively address the problem. It is time for a fresh look at how we handle the problem of sexual assault on our nation's campuses.
As the former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit, I can tell you firsthand that sexual assault crimes impact its victims like no other type of crime. Victims often have difficulty processing the traumatic experience they've endured. Their accounts of incidents can be colored by shame and fear, not to mention post-traumatic stress. This often translates into delayed reports, if any report is made at all! Oftentimes, the report comes too late to collect crucial physical evidence from their bodies and the crime scene. In addition, in a digital world, where so much communication (e.g. texts/tweets etc.) is not maintained on a server, delays in reporting and/or delays in beginning an investigation can mean the difference between finding out what really happened and never really being able to do so. And when alcohol is involved -- as it so often in on-campus incidents -- memory loss makes it that much more difficult to determine exactly what happened.
Compare this to what happens at most colleges and universities. Though well-intentioned and compassionate, it is extremely rare that on-campus investigators have sufficient experience to conduct a proper, skilled, comprehensive investigation. From what questions to ask and how to ask them, to sorting through two versions of the same story, to seeking the necessary permissions to looking for clues on cell phones, in text messages and in other social media outlets, and to legal obligations, these situations require a practiced hand -- not normally found in campus security offices. While many campuses send their security officers to sexual assault trainings, a one day course does not enable these officers to deal with the difficulties inherent in an on-campus sexual assault investigation.
The stakes are simply too high not to handle these cases in the most expert manner possible. This is certain not only for the university, but more importantly for the victim seeking justice, and for the suspect whose life could be ruined if falsely or inaccurately accused. Thus, it's crucial that outside experts come in and conduct independent and fair investigations -- the results of which will enable academic institutions to make better-informed decisions as to the appropriate outcome of sexual misconduct allegations. Too often, campus disciplinary bodies are told by their investigators that they don't know who is telling the truth, or what really happened. An experienced former prosecutor can answer those questions and moreover will be able to explain why they have come to the conclusions they have reached, thus enabling campus disciplinary bodies to make better, more-informed decisions about appropriate future actions.
There is another critical on-campus role for outside sex crimes experts: educating the campus about the realities inherent in sexual assault. While many campuses are offering various types of educational programs about sexual assault, most are burying them in freshman orientation and only following up with voluntary program offerings thereafter. Oftentimes, the audience these schools most need to reach with this education is not coming to these voluntary trainings and the speakers find themselves preaching to the converted.
Finally, in terms of education on campus, one critical missing piece is the talk from someone with real-life experience in the criminal justice world; someone who can talk to the students with real-life examples of cases that have occurred on college campuses, not because they have read about them, but because they dealt with them, in other words, a talk from someone with the "creds" to make the students sit up and listen. I know that an experienced sex crimes prosecutor can get through to students in a way that others without that background cannot. Colleges would be well-served to get the "real deal" to come talk to their students.
Finally, university staff should also be educated in how to recognize signs of sexual assault and what to do when faced with it. An outside expert with experience handling sexual assault cases can offer specific and integrated steps to enhance reporting and response, and improve campus safety.
With so much at stake -- for the students and the schools -- academic institutions need to provide improved education and training regarding the laws governing sexual harassment and assault if they want to reduce such incidents on campus. They need to better educate and train their personnel to respond properly when incidents are reported in order to both get to the truth and to mitigate the risks inherent in the consequences of a mishandled response. And finally, they must handle allegations of sexual misconduct promptly, sensitively and, above all, with expertise. April -- Sexual Assault Awareness Month -- is a good time to start changing how we deal with this on-campus epidemic.