Why colleges and universities need to stop pretending they can handle sexual assault/rape cases internally

 

Trigger Warning: Some of the links in this post lead to stories that may be difficult to read and/or include mentions or descriptions of physical/sexual assault and suicide.

Reading these heartbreaking last words of former Amherst student Trey Malone last week, I was reminded of memories from college. I was never the victim of sexual assault, but was close to several people who were, including both women and men. I also had the difficult and confusing experience of being close to someone who was accused of sexual assault in one of those grey area occurrences where both he and the other young man had been drinking.

No matter who you are, if you’re involved in or close to someone who was involved in a sexual assault in any capacity on a college campus it changes your perspective permanently. For me, it changed how I thought about consent and what was desirable when it comes to intimacy. While this post isn’t about rape/sexual assault itself so much as the problem I have with how universities/colleges are approaching specific instances, I will say that it is not just “evil people” who both commit rape/sexual assault and reinforce the cultural norms that allow and even foster it. For a much better critique I recommend Laurie Penny’s article in the Independent.

What was most surprising about my experience at a private liberal arts college was that the administration seemed to be shooting itself in the foot with their internal review process. Look, if we are all being honest here, we have to admit that a good number of sexual assaults/rapes have some grey area involved. Drinking/drugs, dating and previous interactions, individuals’ reputations, these things are unfortunately all dragged into the equation and anyone who tells you it is easy to sort them out is engaging in wishful thinking.

Which is WHY the process for handling sexual assaults/rapes has to be uniform, and has to be handled by independent (as much as is humanly possible) bodies. Obviously local police have not historically been the best trained (something that’s changing thankfully) when it comes to these cases, but if we’ve got special units to deal with drugs we can certainly provide the same to represent people affected by sexual assault. The fact that many people say the judicial system made them victims twice over is plenty of evidence for that.

But back to the college / university review and disciplinary process. I’m guessing most people involved in adjudicating cases come with good intentions, I certainly saw that in both cases where my friends were sexually assaulted and a friend was accused of sexual assault. But the process was a) largely secret, as mandated by the college’s disciplinary rules and b) investigation was NOT handled by impartial people/committees.

On that first point: I’m told by friends who attended other colleges that this is fairly standard although it is starting to change. In fact, you can sense this problem just by reading Amherst President Biddy Martin’s response to Trey’s suicide note being published. She says:  “Out of respect for Trey’s privacy and the privacy of his family, the College has not been public about what he experienced at Amherst.” That’s the same sort of attitude that colleges often take (and not necessarily for the benefit of students), and is even spelled out in an indirect way in the Amherst student handbook section on sexual misconduct:

While we recognize that a report may emerge through many sources, we encourage our students to report all sexual harassment and sexual misconduct directly to the Sexual Respect Counselor, Title IX Coordinator or the Dean of Student Conduct. These individuals will support you and provide you with information regarding options, including grievance procedures, interim remedies and ongoing emotional support. These individuals will assist in eliminating the misconduct, preventing its occurrence and addressing the effects.

To be clear, the handbook also says “There is no right or wrong way to respond to an act of sexual misconduct” and encourages students to consider contacting police and/or seeking medical attention. It reads nice, but for anyone who’s ever seen how it plays out on a college/university campus there is something weird about the wording, and actions often associated with that wording.

This eloquent letter by a student who was sexually assaulted on the Amherst campus highlights exactly why the disciplinary system at colleges and universities cannot properly deal with a rape/sexual assault. She points out a few problems with the way the disciplinary hearing was conducted, but what really struck me was when she noted that “a professor from your institution framed a question very insensitively asking if I had just thought what had happened to me was rape because ‘my friend had told me.’ If she also understood what rape is she would know that oftentimes rape is not something you want to think happened to you.”

Reading her letter, I immediately thought of another section of the sexual misconduct code in the Amherst Student Handbook, which states that “The college will take immediate action in all allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct to protect the safety of the community and individuals involved.”

The problem, and something I’ve witnessed firsthand, is that the “safety of the community” often extends beyond considerations of the immediate safety of an individual. In fact, reputations of specific students, departments, student groups, the institution itself, etc… all come into play. Not to mention that the judicial boards and systems of process at educational institutions are constantly changing, so there’s a lack of consistency in the decision making process because the level of understanding about what rape/sexual assault is, constantly changes.

I’m not suggesting there’s any easy way to handle these things. Because there simply isn’t. But for colleges and universities to claim that they are making a good faith effort when they are encouraging (and in some cases pushing for) adjudication via their own flawed internal processes/review systems is disingenuous.  They should be focusing their efforts on educating students about consent, and healthy relationships and emotional/physical intimacy on a basic, real level and leave the investigation and judicial action to authorities.

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