Why sexual assault cases on campus are often investigated by school, not police

(By Carolyn Kaster - AP)
(Carolyn Kaster – AP)

The new focus on sexual violence on campus  has prompted many people to wonder why local police don’t investigate all such assault allegations, given that such behavior is criminal.

The White House this week released a list of 55 colleges and universities with open “sexual violence investigations” as the Obama administration puts a new focus on the issue of sexual violence at school and in the military. A White House task force also released a report on how colleges can work toward preventing sex assaults, saying that colleges must be more proactive in curbing violence against women.

The issue is a hard one to quantify because it is believed that most sexual assaults go unreported, certainly on college campuses. Though it is known that sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime, just how much that is true is unclear. Statistics are thrown around but there are no definitive studies from which to draw clear data.

For example, my Post colleague Glenn Kessler, who writes as The Fact Checker for the paper,  investigated the origin of  this statistic repeated by President Obama and Vice President Biden: one in five women on college campuses is sexually assaulted. Really? It turns out that that stat came from a single 2007 study that was based on the experiences of students at two universities. He wrote:

[R]eaders should be aware that this oft-cited statistic comes from a Web-based survey of two large universities, making it problematic to suggest that it is representative of the experience of all college women.

In many and probably most cases of allegations of sexual assault on campus, it is campus authorities that investigate, not the local police. Why? There are several considerations cited by various sources.

Robin Hattersley Gray, editor of  Campus Safety magazine,  said that many victims aren’t even sure about the details of their assault because they were drunk or high on drugs when attacked and they don’t have enough evidence to go to the police. The standard on many campuses for finding someone guilty of an assault is less than it would be in a court of law. In fact, some campuses have students making the decision after a “trial” in which the accuser and the accused testify.

Many victims, according to people who have looked into this issue on various campuses, are not prepared to go through the entire legal process because it can laborious and often not successful in winning a conviction. Some who don’t want to go to the police still don’t want the person who assaulted them living down the dormitory hall and want to feel safe on campus, so they prefer the campus judicial route.

If or how often school authorities try to persuade accusers to keep the accusation inside the college’s judicial process is unknown.

It is also not a simple call for universities about whether to report allegations of sexual assault to the police because of laws that require administrators to keep certain information on students confidential if the student requests it, Hattersley Gray said.

“It’s confusing,” she said. “It depends on whether or not the victim wants to press charges.”

And a lot of that has to do with the requirements of the federal  Title IX and the Clery Act. The White House released the list of 55 schools were part of an effort to see if schools are complying with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at schools that receive federal funding. Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities that participate in federal financial programs must maintain and disclose crime statistics on and near their campuses. So while an allegation of a crime would be included in a crime report, that crime might not be reported to the police.

With the new federal focus on the subject, one thing we do know for sure is that schools are going to give more thought to how they handle accusations of sexual assault.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 2