Sexual Abuse/Assault in Colleges
Where sexual assault and abuse is concerned, universities and colleges cannot afford to continue to wait around and see what happens. This is the advice legal experts gave on 6 August to an American Bar Association (ABA) audience in San Francisco. The program referred to is an attempt to balance the interests and rights of an accused person against those of the victim in cases concerning sexual abuse in colleges. Members of the panel talked about some of the most urgent issues relating to sexual assaults at college campuses. The issues discussed included the commitment by federal government to address the problem, policies and best practice for dealing with sexual assault allegations and with other types of violence on campus, Title IX compliance and complaints, the question of consent, the best interest of the victim, and the accused’s rights to due process.
Formal federal prosecutor and panel moderator, Andrew S. Boutros, said that sexual violence on campus is a real and serious problem and must be carefully, diligently, and expertly handled. He further said solutions must properly balance the victim’s and the accused’s rights. It is just as much of a problem if the alleged victim is subjected to victimization as it is to punish an innocent person. Title IX is a law that prohibits discrimination of the sexual variety in schools and receives government funding. It has been used as effectively to cover rape, sexually-motivated assault, and sexual harassment as it has been to deter discriminatory behavior. Title IX is applicable in equal manner to faculty, men, and campus staff. Caroline Bettinger-Lopez who is a high-level advisor to Joe Biden (Vice President) and advisor to the US President’s Office on Violence Against Women, says Title IX is taken seriously by the US government. A Task Force to Protect College Students against Sexual Assault was established by President Obama early in 2014, and the “Not Alone” report was released in April of the same year by Obama’s administration team. The Education Department developed this handbook setting out certain security and safety procedures to be followed by higher education institutions. The Obama team then launched an initiative entitled “It’s On Us” in September 2014 with a view to ending sexual assault in colleges. This initiative invites every man and woman in the US to take an active part in the program to end the problem. Over 600 universities and colleges are taking part and the pledge has been signed by over 350,000 student participants.
Additionally, a number of other government programs have been put in place. Campus Climate Surveys is one such program designed to help individual schools better understand the sexual abuse taking place. This survey presented results from a pilot involving nine schools where data was collected from 25,000 undergraduates to allow schools understand the culture and climate as these exist on their particular campuses. According to the survey results, 28% of transgender and 35% of bisexual people experience some form of sexual misconduct on campus. The experiences were self-reported by victims. Bettinger-Lopez says that the federal government has never had this type of data on sexual abuse. The Executive Director of a group called Equal Rights Advocates and panelist Noreen Farrell says her organization has made limited progress in changing college campus culture since 1977. This is despite her organization being ahead of others in investigating complaints and issues related to Title IX sexual abuse cases. Farrell’s organization became involved in cases of sexual assault on college campuses to help school and college administrators file complaints, offer advice on criminal proceedings, and advise on the impact of such cases on Title IX. She says her organization works to understand and rectify what is taking place in accordance with the victim’s rights and those of the accused. Farrell also points out that there is no benefit for anyone unless both sides receive fair treatment. According to Farrell, there are no appropriate steps in place meanwhile to safeguard the complainant. Farrell says that many university and college campuses do have serial rapists and they are allowed to remain for too long on campus because of how uncoordinated the mechanisms are for reporting and investing the various incidents. She adds that the incentive for sexual assault on campus would be diminished at source if a change were to take place in the overall culture of campuses. Defense lawyer Robert (M) Cary has over 25 years’ experience and he represented a member of the lacrosse players at Duke University who was wrongly accused of a sexual offense and who was later cleared. Cary represents accused parties in cases of sexual assault on campus and says that an accused person’s life can become devastated when they are wrongly accused or a sexual act was consensual. He says that some of those he represents think the current system is unfair towards them and is, in fact, rigged. He said that many feel there is an incentive in universities and colleges to impress those administering Title IX by showing they are vigilantly dealing with sexual assault crimes and to not jeopardize their government funding. The lawyer also says he would put one significant change at the forefront of his list if he were the president of a college and that would be to restrict alcohol consumption. He believes that alcohol abuse fuels sexual assault and other abuse on campuses. A US Appeals Court judge from San Diego, Judge M Margaret McKeown, says courts are seeking fairness in college campus cases so that all parties enjoy due process. She adds that court is the very last option in cases of this nature and that it indicates a failure in preventative measures. Judge McKeown also mentioned a couple of projects that America’s Law Institute has developed. One of these projects examines due process for cases of sexual assault on college campuses with a view to developing a standard framework. It is made up of a panel of advisors and reporters who primarily examine confidentiality, procedures for reporting, and the part that campus administrators and police play. The other project looks at the definition and role of consent. Over the course of the last two years, 129 federal rape cases have come before the courts, of which 90 concerned college campus rape. McKeown says these matters are taken extremely seriously by the courts.