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New poll shows support for greater police role in college sexual assaults

Passers-by write messages to sexual assault victims in Los Angeles in June. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

An overwhelming percentage of likely voters believe that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors should take the lead role in investigating and adjudicating allegations of sexual assault on college campuses, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

The poll — commissioned by the Fraternity and Sorority Action Fund, which supports political campaigns that promote Greek life principals — shows that 91 percent of likely voters believe that the justice system should oversee judgments in college sexual misconduct or assault cases. Just 30 percent of respondents believed that college administrators should be responsible for deciding if students are guilty in such cases.

The poll comes as a bipartisan bill called the Safe Campus Act is under consideration in Congress. The bill calls for reforms in how colleges pursue allegations of sexual assault and dole out judgments and sanctions. Of the 1,021 poll respondents to the online survey, 77 percent said they would support the bill.

[Do students get a fair hearing? An effort to change how colleges handle sexual assaults.]

Under current federal policies, the U.S. Education Department requires colleges to take the lead in investigating allegations of campus sexual assaults and to report data on the number of incidents each year. At many U.S. college campuses, school administrators play a leading role in handling sexual assault cases that involve students both on campus and off campus. The new bill proposes that police officers be given a window to collect evidence and conduct interviews with victims in college cases.

A Washington Post poll found that one in five college women reported being sexually assaulted in the past four years, and several subsequent polls and surveys at U.S. colleges have found similar results.

[Washington Post poll: 1 in 5 women say they were sexually assaulted in college.]

But in light of a rising number of reported cases — including some sensational accounts, such a retracted Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia — critics have raised questions about how well-equipped colleges are to address the prevalence of rape on campus and question how they can remain fair to those who are accused of sexual assault while also protecting survivors. Some wonder whether colleges — which are primarily focused on education and academics — should also act as police, prosecutor, judge and jury in what would normally be complex criminal cases.

“Let’s all agree sexual assault is a crime,” said Jean Mrasek, chair of the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents sororities. “It is a felony and should be treated as the heinous crime that it is. … Both institutions — universities and law enforcement — must work hand-in-hand in order to best serve survivors.”

Wynn Smiley, chief executive of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, said the proposed bill would help by “protecting all students and better ensuring that the judicial process is fair and transparent for everyone involved.”

Robert Green, who led the survey, said that the results show that sexual assault is a significant issue and that many people want to change how it is handled at the nation’s colleges. The margin of error for the poll was +/- 3 percent.

“American voters believe that sexual assault is a very serious problem, one of the top issues Congress should be doing more about,” Green said.

Fraternity and Sorority Action Fund president Julie Burkhard said that the poll shows that “the current system does not serve the rights of students or the best interests of taxpayers who fund our nation’s colleges and universities.”

Kevin O’Neill, executive director of the Fraternity and Sorority Action Fund, said the poll is useful in that it shows that there is public “support across all party lines and demographics for the common sense solution of utilizing law enforcement as the primary path in solving any sexual assault on campus.”

The bill is scheduled to come up for discussion in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Thursday.