Are Schools Disproportionately Blamed for Mishandling Sexual Assault Cases?

Colleges and universities in the United States were added earlier this year at alarming rates to a list of institutions responding inappropriately to cases of sexual assault on their campuses. In May, articles detailing the “55 colleges with open ‘sexual violence investigations‘” appeared, as if announcing some new, terrifying version of  “Colleges That Change Lives.”In June, millions–including, and of course most satirically, Jon Stewart–scoffed when James Madison University punished three sexual assault perpetrators “by banning them from campus — after they graduate[d].” 

The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, along with correspondents Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper, highlighted the absurdity of some schools' responses to cases of sexual violence on their campuses. Click through to view the segment, "The Fault in Our Schools." (Comedy Central)
The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, along with correspondents Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper, highlighted the absurdity of some schools’ responses to cases of sexual violence on their campuses. Click through to view the segment, “The Fault in Our Schools.” (Comedy Central)

The exposure by the media and other awareness campaigns of such injustices has been enlightening to many, and has brought due criticism against those responsible for these, what have been increasingly labeled as, scandals. However, JMU student and blogger Girl For the World recently pointed out, “It wasn’t until I saw The Daily Show clip that I realized that these public media reports are doing more damage to the spirit of schools than the incidents themselves.”

In calling to “Shame the Offenders, Not the School,” Girl For the World uses personal anecdote, as a student at James Madison University, to highlight the worrisome nature of placing most–if not all–blame for lack of ability to handle sexual assault cases solely on the schools. In sum, questioning the school as a whole, in turn, questions the experience of the faculty, staff, and students, including those who are entirely removed from the sexual assault cases.

The desire to vilify an entire university is understandable: it’s not easy to identify the precise person or group of people in the administration responsible for upholding the school’s compliance with various federal laws. The actual act of shaming, ripping apart, and humiliating an entire school (a la Mr. Stewart), rather than identifying the individual factors of the situation, however, should not be so readily condoned. This starts with understanding the authority and responsibility of colleges and universities in the allegation of crimes.

Colleges and universities across the United States are bound to certain legal standards, responsibilities, and expectations by various federal laws; however, they are not themselves institutions of the legal system.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq.) prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of gender, and includes a key section on sexual harassment:

The Supreme Court has confirmed that schools have an obligation under Title IX to prevent and address harassment against students, regardless of whether the harassment is perpetrated by peers, teachers, or other school officials.

Additionally, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (20 USC § 1092(f)) requires campus crime reports to be publicly available and for warnings to be issued about crimes that pose a threat to campus community members.

Along with Title IX, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice offer guidelines to schools for dealing with sexual violence cases. According to clarification earlier this year, these guidelines define a school’s responsibilities as such:

When a school knows or reasonably should know of possible sexual violence, it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred (subject to the confidentiality provisions discussed in Section E.) If an investigation reveals that sexual violence created a hostile environment, the school must then take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects. …

Title IX requires a school to protect the complainant and ensure his or her safety as necessary, including taking interim steps before the final outcome of any investigation. The school should take these steps promptly once it has notice of a sexual violence allegation and should provide the complainant with periodic updates on the status of the investigation. If the school determines that the sexual violence occurred, the school must continue to take these steps to protect the complainant and ensure his or her safety, as necessary. The school should also ensure that the complainant is aware of any available resources, such as victim advocacy, housing assistance, academic support, counseling, disability services, health and mental health services, and legal assistance, and the right to report a crime to campus or local law enforcement. …

Schools have the right to dole out “reasonably calculated” punishment as they see fit. This right is based on the schools’ legal obligation to investigate to the fullest extent the alleged crime. The fullest extent of a school’s investigation, by nature, will not match the fullest extent of a proper criminal investigation unless police are involved, which is not always the case. In the LA Times, Gabrielle Glaser explains, “Indeed, though the crimes at issue are considered among the most serious in the criminal code, the accusations are typically handled by campus administrators who are unlikely to have the sensitivity, forensic training or expertise required to investigate a possible sex crime.”

A school may independently come to the conclusion that a sexual crime has been committed, but without forensic evidence and a criminal charge against the alleged perpetrator, they may have a legitimate fear of the accused retaliating with legal force against the school’s verdict, thus leading to softer punishment. In the end, the punishments are not necessarily proportionate to the crimes committed, but proportionate to the school’s extent of the investigations.

The recent suits filed against these 55 schools throughout the country show how the vague language of Title IX and its guidelines can lead to wide and varying interpretations of the law. Without uniformity in procedure, standards in accusing and punishing perpetrators have fallen. While schools certainly must be held accountable for their handling of any crime, their reliance on a larger system–the legal system–must not be forgotten. If schools are relying on, what University of Massachusetts at Boston psychologist David Lisak calls, “a 1,000-year system of failure dealing with sexual assault,” then the schools, too, will fail in addressing sexual assault.

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