Recently Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, argued that colleges are not capable of adequately handling sexual assault cases. He cites a recent case from Oklahoma State University, where a serial offender was suspended for three years with no further disciplinary action, while the university failed to inform police.
I share Mr. Goldstein's concerns about campus sexual assault, and I agree that colleges are ill-equipped to investigate crimes, particularly ones which involve forensic evidence. However, the simple "let the police handle it approach" ignores the fact that in many cases, the police are unwilling to investigate or prosecute incidents of sexual assault that they feel are too difficult to prove in court.
I've reported extensively on sexual assault at Whitman College, a small liberal arts school in Eastern Washington. When I initially began looking into the issue, many of the survivors I spoke to felt that the college process was inadequate, and bitterly regretted not going to the police in the first place. The initial article we published suggested precisely what the SPLC is advocating -- survivors would be better served bypassing the college entirely and speaking to a detective.
In the wake of this investigation, though, I started hearing more stories. There was the friend who brought a guy home with the intention of making out with him for a bit, then found herself being pressured repeatedly for anal sex and touched in ways she didn't consent to while he physically prevented from leaving. She sat on it for a few days and went to the police, where she was told that they couldn't do anything because it was her word against his and she hadn't fought back hard enough.
I've heard half a dozen stories from friends and classmates who were assaulted while they were on the verge of blacked out. While Washington State law includes sex with someone "incapacitated" due to drug or alcohol use in its definition of rape, local police are almost always unwilling to take these cases on. In addition, many survivors don't want to go to the police at all. Some don't feel able to sit through a trial, some are afraid they'll be blamed for what happened to them, and some just want to put the incident behind them.
While examples like the OSU case are a dramatic illustration of the failures of college procedures for handling sexual assault, it's important to remember that dealing with police can be equally ineffective, frustrating or traumatizing for survivors. Police are well-equipped to handle cases with serial offenders, multiple victims and large amounts of evidence, but they are likely to falter in more common scenarios where the victim was drunk, or the perpetrator was a friend or acquaintance.
Campus rape is a complicated issue, and one that's not well-served by a one-size-fits-all policy. It's unconscionable that many colleges use internal disciplinary hearings to cover up incidents and let rapists off the hook, but it's equally frustrating that legal recourse is often elusive for survivors who choose to pursue that option. In an ideal world, survivors would feel comfortable reporting to police, and police would be equipped to investigate and prosecute cases which seem less cut-and-dry, leaving colleges out of the process entirely. Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in, and removing campus disciplinary hearings from the equation isn't going to change that anytime soon.