Sunday, May 04, 2014

Why Colleges Mishandle Sexual Assault

My first week of college, someone passed along some time-honored undergrad wisdom: "If you're going to get arrested," we were told, "and you see a campus cop coming one way and a city cop coming the other, run to the campus cop." I've been thinking about that advice lately, as the news brings more scandals about sexual assault at American colleges. This week the Department of Education named 55 colleges and universities being investigated for mishandling sexual violence complaints. Fifty-five. The school where I was told to run to the campus police is one of them. That advice is part of the problem: completely backwards for victims of sexual violence. If you've been the victim of a crime, you should run away from the campus authorities. You need the actual police.

The advice to choose the campus police presupposed that I was going to be arrested, for drinking or some other college-boy misdemeanor. And while I managed to get through college without needing it, that advice was sound. Getting arrested by the college police is a better deal. College authorities don't want their students in serious trouble, and they look for ways to let them off easy. Getting arrested by the campus police could still have real consequences. But you can be sure you will face the fewest consequences your actions permit.

But if you are the victim of a crime and only go to the college authorities, that means your attacker will face the fewest consequences possible. Not might. Will. If you are assaulted or raped and you only go through the school's judicial process, you are keeping your attacker safe in the hands of the people most reluctant to punish him.

Colleges don't especially want to punish crimes of any description. Not petty drug and alcohol beefs, not iPad swipes or bicycle theft, not anything. The individual people who make up the school naturally believe, in the abstract, that crimes should be punished. But the organization itself is not interested in crime or punishment. A university will, if you push it far enough, punish you for a crime. But you have to give it no other choice.

I work as a college professor. I was raised by a police officer. Those two things are nothing alike. Police departments and universities obviously look different. But they are actually even more different than they look. The differences are pervasive and profound, shaping the outlook of everyone inside either institution. Cops and deans, simply because they are cops and deans, see the world in radically different ways.

What colleges want is for their students to succeed. Schools are willing to suspend students, expel them, or flunk them out when a particular case seems hopeless. But those are always considered bad results. Flunking and expelling people is not the general goal. What schools want is for as many students as possible to do well and graduate.

That means if one student has assaulted another the school will hope, deep in its institutional heart, that there's some way that things can work out for both students. They will try to mediate a solution that, at least in the mediators' minds, keeps everyone happy. That comes, originally, from a benign place. But the how-can-this-work-out-for-everybody mindset becomes insanely inappropriate when one person has committed a crime against another. It is a ghastly response to sexual assault.

Police and prosecutors are not concerned about everything working out for all parties involved. They're not worried about the long-term future of people accused of serious crimes. The police, by their nature, take sides. The accused can get his own damn lawyer. If someone has assaulted you, go to the people who will treat you as a victim and your attacker as a potential criminal. Do not go to people who view you and your attacker as equally valued members of the community.

Sexual assaults aren't the only crimes that colleges mediate in this wrongheaded way. If you're in college and another student causes you serious harm or does major property damage, you will not get full satisfaction from the school authorities, because they are not a court of law. I cannot tell any specific stories here, but if you have been a victim colleges are not set up, or legally empowered, to give you genuine restitution. And universities' approach to adjudicating crimes can be grotesquely Solomonic. If you go to them about a stolen baby, they will often propose cutting the baby in half. (In the original story, of course, Solomon only proposes the baby-splitting to smoke out a malefactor, because anyone okay with cutting a baby in half is no damned good.) This leads to the kind of Mickey-Mouse discipline often given out to young men who have sexually attacked their classmates. Colleges don't treat rape as a crime because colleges have trouble thinking of their students as criminals.

Even worse, precisely because universities are not courts of law, they have generally become skittish about being sued in real courts of law by the parents of students who misbehave. When a student does get suspended or expelled, they sometimes turn up with parents and lawyers arguing that the punishment is too "extreme" and that the punished student didn't get due process and the school is ruining this young man's bright future and so on and so on and so on. So, the Mickey-Mouse nature of the college discipline process not only means that serious crimes get only Mickey-Mouse punishments, but means even those lame, inadequate punishments are vulnerable to challenge on the grounds that the whole procedure was Mickey-Mouse. After the panel gives the victim half a baby, lawyers show up demanding that the criminal be given three quarters of the baby.

Many school have apparently been conditioned by this process to bend over backwards trying to avoid lawsuits by the families of the very students that the school has slapped on the wrist for serious crimes. Schools have faced legal expenses and jeopardy over taking crimes too seriously. They have not been sued, until just the last few years, for not taking crimes seriously enough. The recent spate of lawsuits, and the investigation by the federal government, is a needed and long-overdue corrective.

What is completely inexcusable, and what I hope the recent lawsuits and investigations and bad publicity will finally end, is colleges' practice of deliberately steering young women away from pressing charges. Colleges, whose self-interest dictates that everything stay in house, tell victims of sexual violence that staying with the college's in-house disciplinary procedure is in the victim's interest. That is a scandal. It is a terrible thing to frighten a young woman fresh from a traumatic experience of sexual violence with stories of how scary it would be for her to go to the police. But traumatized young women are frequently told that going to the police will be much worse for them than staying with the college's in-house procedures. That is a lie. Nothing is worse for victims than a college's in-house procedures.

Whenever someone is telling you how horrible going to the police would be for you, that's usually a sign that you should go to the police right away.  And if someone is urging you not to go to the police, ask yourself why your going to the police scares them.

Worst of all, discouraging women from going to the police when they have been raped or assaulted discourages them from understanding what has happened to them as a crime. And if you have been victimized you must never, ever let go of that basic truth. What has been done to you is not a misunderstanding or a discourtesy or a violation of some pissant code of conduct. It is a crime, and no one who treats it as something else cares about your welfare.

If you are a college or university, the best way to protect yourself from litigation over how you've handled felonies on your campus is not to fool around trying to adjudicate felonies. You're not set up for it, and you're not good at it. Bring in the police as soon as you can; dealing with crime is their thing. And never, ever try to protect one student from the police by leaving another unprotected.

If you are a victim, don't walk to the police. Run. If you can get to the police without telling any campus authorities, do it. You can go to the deans after the police report has been filed. Asking that your attacker be moved out of your dorm will have a lot more bite if you're pressing criminal charges. And that charge will change the deans' sense of the situation's magnitude. They'll be less likely to tell you that moving your attacker to another dorm for a semester is a sufficient final punishment.

A crime is a crime no matter where it happens. If you want to learn about Platonic philosophy, don't go to a police lieutenant. If you've been a victim of a serious crime, don't go to a dean.

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