If a 19-year-old high-school dropout raped by her ex-boyfriend wants justice, she calls the police. The same should apply to a 19-year-old college freshman similarly attacked by another student.
But it doesn’t apply nearly enough. Colleges have let themselves become arbiters of violent crime. They have no business being in that business. Furthermore, they got into the business for bad reasons.
The inevitable result has been students suing their universities over what they see as an inadequate response to their allegations of sexual abuse. The feds are investigating several schools — including Harvard, Princeton, Ohio State and Florida State — over the matter.
Many colleges want sexual crimes on campus handled in-house so the public doesn’t learn of them. In Rhode Island, for example, colleges have recorded 500 sexual assaults over a recent decade, but only one involved a call to police.
The other bad reason is that many of the aggrieved women prefer going to university authorities for a more cushioned experience. It is believed that a college-based panel investigating charges of “gender-based sexual misconduct” will be more sympathetic to the woman’s narrative.
It is also assumed that colleges will place less emphasis than police on possible mitigating circumstances: Whether the woman and her alleged attacker were drunk. Whether they already had a consensual sexual relationship, which is usually the case.
Oddly, the accusers often want to protect their alleged attackers from the harsher treatment they might receive in the criminal justice system.
The Columbia University student magazine The Blue and White carried a perceptive analysis of what’s going on, by Barnard College senior Anna Bahr. She wrote of the complainants:
‘‘Some explicitly hoped for leniency — seeing their assaulter participate in a remedial, community-based program was more attractive than expulsion. In other cases, students felt conflicted about sending their assaulter to jail — ‘ruining the life’ — of an individual who had once been a friend.”
Thing is, outside the cosseted confines of the university gates, victims don’t assume they may customize the punishment meted out to their assailants. And you do wonder about the blurred lines — in some of the women’s heads — regarding the true nature of the crimes they’re alleging. In New York state, conviction for first-degree rape can bring up to 25 years in prison.
One celebrated case involves Emma Sulkowicz. While a sophomore at Columbia University, Sulkowicz says she invited into her room a man she considered a good friend and with whom she had had consensual sex twice. In the course of having sex, he became violent and began hitting her.
She says she felt disrespected by the university adjudicators and wronged when the panel held the male student “not responsible.” So she’s suing the university for, among other things, not protecting her from the possibility that she might run into her alleged assailant at the library.
And she still hasn’t called the police. In New York, the statute of limitations for someone to be charged with the sexual assault of an adult is five years. Sulkowicz could report him to law enforcement today.
Rape and any other violent attack should be a matter for police, not a team of university counselors, administrators and panels. If the police are not up to the task — and they’ve gotten better at dealing sensitively with sexual crimes against women — then that’s the issue.
A university wanting to ease the perceived or real trauma of its charges might offer counseling and medical services. But when a student insists she’s been raped and wants justice done, then the appropriate guidance is to help her dial 911.
FROMA HARROP is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Her column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.