How Government Created the Campus Rape Crisis [Corrected, May 5]

You know who does an even worse job than the cops at dealing with rape? College administrators.


Campus rape
Valeri Pizhanski / Foter

Note: An earlier version of this column erroneously stated that the alleged attacker in a case at Brown University admitted to the allegations against him. That is not the case. We regret the error.

The Obama administration recently released recommendations for strengthening the laws around protecting college students from harassment and sexual assault. The report, Not Alone, comes three months after the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Not Alone and its accompanying website, NotAlone.gov, recommends new practices for colleges and universities nationwide.

Some of the recommendations aren't bad—more polling data can help fill in the gaps created by underreporting, prevention programs are probably worth a try. But ultimately none of the recommendations address the fundamental issue with on-campus rape, and leave intact a system seemingly designed to fail.

The system for adjudicating on-campus sexual assault currently in place utterly fails victims, the accused, administrators and fellow students and faculty. The problem began in the 1970s, with the passing of Title IX. The law includes a provision requiring schools to independently investigate reports of sexual assault and harassment.

Victims can still go to the cops in addition to these campus courts. But for myriad reasons, including the fact that police officers are all-too-happy to not have to deal with rape cases, schools don't want to work with police, and victims don't want to deal with two investigations, schools often handle the investigations themselves.

It's undeniably true that police botch rape cases horribly. They harass, intimidate, blame, and abuse victims, refuse to collect evidence or investigate, and allow rape kits to expire, untested by the thousands every year. But you know who does an even worse job than the professionals who are trained (however poorly) to deal with the crime? College administrators.

Yet for some reason, lawmakers decided that that's exactly who should be responsible for investigating and punishing rapes on college campuses.

Often, it's in a school's interest to sweep messes like rape under the rug. Administrators have no training in investigating rape allegations, and very little incentive to get justice for victims, especially when the accused are star athletes, stellar students, or just well-liked. Rapes are generally investigated and sentences handed down by a panel of students, hardly a group of professionals up to the task.

Despite updates to Title IX such as the Clery Act, which requires schools to disclose campus crime statistics, and a Dear Colleague letter from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights asking schools to do better at investigating and prosecuting rape, schools have handled rape exactly as you'd expect them to: poorly.

The stories are sickening. At Patrick Henry College, it's come out that administrators ask women who report rape whether they were flirting with their rapists. One got an assignment to read a modesty self-help book after reporting her rape. A college official instructed her to delete e-mails, calls and texts from the student who raped her.

Florida State University did virtually no investigating when a student brought allegations forward that their star quarterback, Jameis Winston, raped her, despite her bruises and the football star's semen which could be found in her underwear. What finally got him suspended? Shoplifting crab legs.

Despite knowing Sasha Menu Courey believed she had been raped, University of Missouri administrators defied federal requirements and refused to investigate. She committed suicide 16 months after the assault. After Lizzy Seeberg accusing a Notre Dame football player of raping her, the only people she heard from were friends of the accused, who harassed her until she took her own life ten days after reporting the attack.

Their attacks were never investigated. That's not unusual.

Perhaps realizing the deficiencies of the panel-of-students route, the new report recommends schools get rid of the hearings altogether. Only instead of turning the investigations over to law enforcement, the Task Force wants schools to empower a single administrator to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. According to Greg Lukianoff, President of campus free-speech organization FIRE, this new sole administrator would offer the accused "no chance to challenge his or her accuser's testimony."

Tellingly, the Task Force expresses only the most meager sense of the rights necessary to secure fundamentally fair hearings, noting that it believes the single investigator model would still "safeguard[] an alleged perpetrator's right to notice and to be heard."

The truth is that Title IX is as toothless is as it ill-conceived. Failing to report gets schools slapped on the wrist. The Department of Education fined Yale University $165,000 for not disclosing four separate forceful sexual offenses over several years. After a student was sexually assaulted and killed at Eastern Michigan University they didn't send out a campus alert, and paid $350,000 for it.

The thinking behind leaving investigating rape to schools never made any sense. If someone rapes someone, most people think they should be in jail. Why should it be different when a student rapes another student? We could get upset that most students found guilty of raping other students aren't expelled. But what good does it do to send a rapist home, as if without a campus they couldn't find someone to rape?

Cops don't want to have to deal with rape, and campuses simply can't. It's time to fix both problems at the same time.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the nation's preeminent anti-sexual assault organizations, warns: "Until we find a way to engage and partner with law enforcement, to bring these crimes out of the shadows of dorm rooms and administrators' offices, and to treat them as the felonies that they are, we will not make the progress we hope."

The answer to ill-equipped, uninterested, abusive police departments isn't to move the cases to ill-equipped, unmotivated, perversely incentivized school administrators. It's to force cops to do their jobs. That's exactly what prosecutor Kym Worthy is doing in Wayne County, Mich., where Detroit is located. She's successfully pressured police to go through the county's massive backlog of rape kits, and is demanding change in the way rapes are handled after she discovered audio evidence of neglect and abuse of victims by cops.

If she can do it in one of the most cash-strapped areas of the country, it can be done everywhere. It takes pressure to force police departments to stop abusing victims and refusing them justice. But victims of all ages deserve nothing less.