Campus sexual assault is a serious issue in the United States. 1 in 5 women in college, and 1 in 6 of their male colleagues, are survivors of sexual assault. Women in college are four times more likely to experience sexual assault than any other group in America. Campus sexual assault has also been receiving more coverage in recent years. From a student at Columbia, whose performance art project in response to her assault turned into a movement, to the outcome of a recent trial where the defense maintained that the survivor didn’t struggle enough against her assailant, the topic has been almost unavoidable.
However, this heightened coverage of campus sexual assault has brought renewed scrutiny to the treatment of those accused of assault. Concern for the alleged assailants led organizations representing fraternities to file a set of new bills in Congress.
One of the most extreme of these bills is the Safe Campus Act.
This bill would fundamentally change the way universities address campus sexual assault.
Currently, schools use the “preponderance of evidence,” or proof that leads the university to believe that there is a 51% chance that the accused student committed the assault, before moving on to assigning punishment. These laws would shift this process, and allow universities to adopt even more stringent standards for proof in a sexual assault case. What’s more – the accused student would have to be given access to all of the evidence in the case at least a week before the trial.
Title IX allows survivors to address their assault through the campus, police department, or to use both avenues if they prefer. Under the Safe Campus Act, colleges would have no right to pursue punitive action against an alleged assailant unless the survivor also reported the assault to the police.
Proponents of the law suggest that these reporting requirements would increase the likelihood of reporting sexual assault to the police. Today’s rates of reporting leave much to be desired – less than 5% of assault and attempted assaults on campus are reported to the police. But there is no evidence that pushing survivors to report assaults to the police will improve this reality. Instead, it is far more likely to even further discourage survivors from coming forward at all.
One Texas college student who chose to report her sexual assault to her university instead of law enforcement, and who wished to remain anonymous for the purpose of this story, explained the potential danger of this policy:
- “If I was only able to report the assault to my university after reporting it to the police, I likely would have done neither. Not only would this force me to take a path I did not want to take–one that I had thought about carefully–but it would have prevented me from seeking the safety and simple accommodations the university could provide to me as a survivor.”
Twenty-eight advocacy organizations focused on ending sexual assault also expressed their disapproval of the law this week, Huffington Post reported. As the article points out – this is the only crime being targeted on college campuses.
Policies regarding theft, for example, will remain unchanged. Universities will still be allowed to pursue those accused of sexual harassment and stalking, without requiring the victims of those crimes to report them to the cops.
So – why now? Why this crime?
According to those who brought these bills to Capitol Hill, campus sexual assault policies leave too many opportunities for conflicts of interest or inaccurate findings.
But what will this mean for survivors? “I have watched friends as they go through the criminal process with the police department, and it is excruciating,” my interviewee said. “Police investigations and court proceedings can take years to be completed; the backlog of rape kits is outrageous; and the likelihood that the perpetrator will be found guilty is not promising.”
The decision to go through her university’s process instead of reporting the assault to the police was a long and deliberate one. “I did what I needed to do to take care of myself as a survivor, finally, after years of walking around campus with my rapist roaming as he pleased,” she explained. “Although he is not behind bars, I have peace of mind that he won’t interrupt my educational endeavors now, something that should be a fundamental right for everyone.”
Addressing campus sexual assault is absolutely essential. We have to find a way to increase support for providers and interrupt the cycle of sexualized violence on college campuses. Increasing the barriers to reporting sexual assault is not the solution.
The Safe Campus Act does make campuses safer, but not for those who most need our protection. The lawmakers who introduced it, including two Representatives from Texas, Kay Granger and Pete Sessions, are far more concerned with the safety of students from false accusations than they are with the emotional and mental well-being of survivors.