Nov 17, 2014

    US must change tack on college rape

    THE United States strategy for dealing with rape on college campuses has failed abysmally. Female students are raped in appalling numbers, and their rapists almost invariably go free.

    Forced by the federal government, colleges have now got into the business of conducting rape trials, but they are not competent to handle this job. They are simultaneously failing to punish rapists adequately and branding students sexual assailants when no sexual assault has occurred.

    There is a need to transform the approach to campus rape to get at the root problems.

    How many rapes occur on American campuses is disputed. The best, most carefully controlled study was conducted for the Department of Justice in 2007; it found that about one in 10 women had been raped at college.

    But because of low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear that they won't be believed, only a minuscule percentage of college women who are raped report it to the police.

    The federal government in 2011 mandated a ramped-up sexual assault adjudication process at American colleges, presumably believing that campuses could respond more aggressively than the criminal justice system.

    So now colleges are conducting trials, often presided over by professors and administrators who know little about law or criminal investigations.

    At Columbia University and Barnard College, more than 20 students have filed complaints against the school for mishandling and rejecting their sexual assault claims. But at Vassar College, Duke University, the University of Michigan and elsewhere, male students who claim innocence have sued because they were found guilty.

    If schools are genuinely interested in preventing sexual assault, they need to overhaul how they think about assault and what they do about it.

    Prevention, rather than adjudication, should be a college's priority. That means we need to stop being so foolish about alcohol on campus.

    A vast majority of college women's rape claims involve alcohol. Not long ago, 18-year-olds in many states could drink legally. College-sponsored events could openly involve a keg, with security officers on hand to ensure that things didn't get out of hand.

    Since 1984, when the federal government compelled states to adopt a legal drinking age of 21, college alcohol policies have been a mockery. Prohibition has driven alcohol into private spaces and house parties, with schools largely turning a blind eye.

    When those spaces and parties are male-dominated, it's a recipe for sexual predation. Such predation has been documented: Attending fraternity parties makes women measurably more likely to be sexually assaulted.

    If colleges are serious about reducing rapes, they need to break the links among alcohol, all-male clubs and campus party life. Ideally, we should lower the drinking age so that staff or security personnel can be present at parties.

    In any event, schools need to forcibly channel the alcohol party scene out of all-male clubs and teach students how to intervene when one person appears to be taking sexual advantage of another's extreme intoxication. At the same time, students need to be told clearly that if they are voluntarily under the influence (but not incapacitated), they are responsible for their choices.

    Moreover, sexual assault on campus should mean what it means in the outside world and in courts of law. Otherwise, the concept of sexual assault is trivialised, casting doubt on students courageous enough to report an assault.

    The college hearing process could then be integrated with law enforcement. The new university procedures offer college rape victims an appealing alternative to filing a complaint with the police.

    According to a recent New York Times article, a "great majority" of college students now choose to report incidents of assault to their school, not the police, because of anonymity and other perceived advantages.

    But the danger is obvious. University proceedings may be exacerbating the fundamental problem: The fact that almost no college rapists are criminally punished - which they will never be if the crimes are never reported to the police.

    Rape on campus is substantially enabled by the fact that rapists almost always get away with their crimes. College punishments - sensitivity training, a one-semester suspension - are slaps on the wrist. Even expulsion is radically deficient. It leaves serial rapists free to rape elsewhere, while their crimes are kept private under confidentiality rules.

    If college rape trials become a substitute for criminal prosecution, they will paradoxically help rapists avoid the punishment they deserve and require for rape to be deterred.

    But colleges can't just leave the victims to the criminal justice system, in part because most victims are reluctant to report them to the police. That is why integrating college rape hearings with law enforcement are critical.

    New training for the police and prosecutors is essential, too. Special law enforcement liaison officers who know how to respectfully receive and vigorously act on sexual assault complaints should be present in every college town. They should be at every college sexual assault hearing.

    The rights of the accused have to be protected, but whenever there is evidence of a rape on a college campus, the police need to know.

    Everything possible should be done to encourage victims to participate in a criminal investigation; if students make a formal complaint of rape to their school, the college should provide them with a lawyer to go with them to the police, help them report the crime and ensure they are treated properly.

    Meanwhile, the hearing process should be put in the hands of trained investigatory personnel and people with criminal law experience.