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Campus Sexual Assault Comes Before Senate

A recent Rolling Stone magazine article published a horrifying account of a sexual assault occurring at the University of Virginia. The accuracy of the account was later brought into question, with the magazine even backing away from story, apologizing for the poor reporting. However, the story has brought to light the complicated and difficult to discuss issue of sexual assaults on campus. 

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on the involvement of law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting these campus assault cases. Only a fraction of college sexual assault victims report the crimes to police. A new report from the U.S. Justice Department indicates that only 1 in 5 female college students who are assaulted come forward to report the incidents to police. Nearly one-third of women who are the same age, but not in college, report sexual assaults to police. This is a discernible discrepancy between assaulted young women in and out of college.

The reasons female university students gave for not reporting the results varied. Some said the incident was a personal matter, some were afraid of reprisal, some thought the police would not be able to do anything to help, other said the assault was not important enough to report. Some of the victims indicated they would rather work within the university system and not press criminal charges. However, keeping the sexual assault squarely within the higher education disciplinary system raises a host of problems.

Federal data showed that sexual assaults on campus rose 50% from 2009 to 2012. However, some claim that the high number of assaults have been present on campus the whole time. They claim the reason for this apparent jump is that people were afraid to come forward in the past, making the increase in campus sexual assaults in part due to better data and reporting.

The Democratic Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, is co-sponsoring a bill that would require universities to have a "memorandum of understanding" with local police for sexual assault cases. Gillibrand said the ultimate goal would be for 100 percent of victims to report their assaults to the police. However, Kathy Zoner, the chief of the Cornell University Police said that while such a memorandum would be helpful, there would be no guarantee that the local law enforcement would cooperate.

There have been complaints that some colleges and universities urge victims not to report the assaults to police out of concern for the university's reputation. Others claim the universities are not qualified to adequately decide such cases. Internal adjudication does not feature the due process guarantees that a criminal court provides, which leads some to claim that they were falsely accused, facing expulsion from their university.

In a recent article, one University of Michigan student alleges a consensual relationship with a fellow student, and months later was contacted by a university administrator who questioned him about the incident. When asking if he should consult a lawyer, the university representatives said if he did so, that fact would be reported to the university, and they would continue their investigation without his statement. This policy effectively discouraged him from seeking counsel. The dual levels of investigation and prosecution between non-judicial university proceedings and the criminal process can complicate the already sensitive nature of reporting and prosecuting sexual assault on campus.

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