A bill being considered in Congress would require universities to notify police about reports of sexual assault or else forego punishment for the accused.
The Safe Campus Act was introduced in July by Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, along with Kay Granger and Pete Sessions of Texas. Proponents say the intent of the bill is to ensure both sides of any sexual assault investigation on campus are treated fairly.
The bill allows both parties the right to hire an attorney (at their own expense) and the right to question witnesses and examine any evidence presented. If the bill were enacted, university officials would be required to notify law enforcement of any reported sexual assault. If the university chose not to do so, the bill would restrict the university’s right to assign punishment, such as expulsion of the accused, on its own.
The bill comes in the midst of an ongoing national debate over how alleged rapes are handled on campuses across the country. Advocates claim that universities have an incentive to downplay and cover-up crimes which happen on campus since those incidents would tend to discourage potential students from attending.
Also recently, however, some high-profile accusations of such behavior have also been shown to be false. Rolling Stone‘s splashy story “A Rape on Campus” created an international sensation for its graphic description of a gang rape at a fraternity house. Further investigation by journalists uncovered substantial evidence the incident never happened.
In addition to the false rape accusation it contained, the Rolling Stone story also pointed the finger at university administrators at UVA. That part of the story was apparently also misreported and is now part of a $7.5 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone by a female dean.
Campus advocates began a campaign against the Safe Campus Act last week with 27 separate groups sending in letters of opposition to the Huffington Post. The groups offer varying reasons for opposing the legislation, but most see it as something that will further dissuade victims from reporting crimes in the first place. Several of the letters suggest that victims might fear the police or that police have a poor record of properly handling rape claims. All of the activists groups included in the story think alleged victims will be better off dealing with the university.
At one point, the author of the HuffPo piece highlights what he sees as the possible outcome of the bill:
A student could accuse a classmate of sexual assault, and also accuse the classmate of harassing her in the hallways by pinching her butt — but if she doesn’t want to report the incidents to police, then the university would only be allowed to discipline the accused student for the hallway harassment.
Of course, a student found guilty of sexual assault would almost certainly face expulsion and, very probably, have a difficult time resuming his (or her) college career. The expulsion might even follow the individual for years after school, given that hiring managers can now check Google. The potential punishment seems too severe to be handled by a process better suited to minor property disputes or, as in this example, less serious cases of harassment.
Proponents of the bill argue the determination of guilt in these cases is serious enough that it should be handled more like a criminal cases, i.e. access to witnesses, documents, and attorneys, plus the right to know what one is being accused of doing. In addition, involving the police could help by having professional investigators to sort out the truth and, possibly, to ensure a dangerous rapist isn’t given a chance to create more victims somewhere else.