By Victoria Boatman
Sexual assault cases in colleges nationwide have taken center stage this year as individuals and institutions raise their voices in opposition to failed status quo policies.
Activists, Congress and the Obama administration have prompted federal legislation, a White House task force and most recently California’s “yes means yes” policy.
Earlier this year, attention pointedly turned towards 55 colleges listed under investigation by the Department of Education for their mishandling of sexual assault cases under Title IX. Victims cited this gender discrimination law in cases against universities who they feel failed to protect them.
Individuals who have come forward with their stories not only highlight sexual assault on campus, but illuminate the ineffective policies that fail to protect victims and competently prosecute perpetrators.
University policy nationwide on sexual assault is careless, with no sincere refuge for victims and limited sound due process. Failing policies and infrastructure keep students from reporting sexual assault and students nationwide display little, if any, confidence in a college’s ability to help victims seek justice.
One of the best controlled studies on sexual assault was done by the Department of Justice in 2007. It found that 1/10 undergrad women will be raped in college. This same study found that an astonishing 5 percent or less of women report those rapes.
These numbers are a reflection of several factors that include low arrest records, women fearing they won’t be believed and lack of confidentiality for victims.
Students such as Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz are a testament to this system that has failed students. Sulkowicz, who has become the face of anti-rape movements on campuses across the nation, has vowed to haul her mattress around campus until her rapist is convicted. She started the protest in August, two years after she was raped, and continues to fight for justice to this day.
If Sulkowicz’ rapist was to be adjudicated, it will be at a “rape trial,” a customary practice for universities across the country, that is presided over by professors and administrators whose judicial proceeding experience is commonly insufficient to administer due process.
Routinely, these trials fail at their attempt to seek justice on behalf of the victims and due process for the accused due to their lack of substantive judicial proceedings.
Perpetrators who are punished through the college’s evidentiary standards are of the “more likely than not” variety at these trials, divergent from the criminal justices system of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” The obvious disconnect in this being the lack of sound evidentiary proceedings.
Substantiating these kangaroo courts is the federal government, which ramped up its sexual assault adjudication in 2011. Government officials mistakenly believe that campuses can respond to sexual assault cases more aggressively than the criminal justice system.
These misguided notions about how to handle sexual assault cases leave major gaps in logic, and victims suffer at these lapses in judgement. Campus trials rarely ever carry over into actual criminal law proceedings – meaning, a rapist can be expelled from a school if found guilty, but will receive no legal consequences for his actions through the university, leaving him free to rape again and perpetuating a cycle of violence.
Research suggests that more than 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by less than four percent of the student body. These serial rapists average six victims, but the likelihood that they will ever be punished is infinitesimal.
Colleges are not only failing their students in policy, but they continue to perpetuate rape culture in a multitude of ways, such as outdated and offensive sexual assault “prevention” education programs that aim to instruct women on how to prevent rape, rather than educating young men on not raping. And university counselors who vocally doubt victims claims, ask them to “forgive and forget” or simply tell their students it must of been just a bad hookup.
These trivialization’s of sexual assault accompanying the mentality of “boys will be boys” lead into a form of victim blaming. When these microaggressions come from the institutions themselves, it makes sense that young women take pause in reporting sexual assault crimes. Who would trust a system with a victim blaming ethos?
Universities serious about preventing sexual assault will look to change not only policy, but the conversation on campus, promoting outreach policies within the university to give women confidence their voice will be heard and their universities will protect them.
More importantly, there needs to be a liaison between the school and the court system that can help victims take their cases to court. This would not only give survivors a voice that has long been suppressed, but allow victims to feel represented and validated.
Colleges across the country have a long way to go to gain back the confidence of their students. But if schools are serious about being a proponent for justice, they will pave a way to regaining the confidence of their students and communities.