Students Should Not be Forced to Report Sexual Assault to Police
By Tim Hardiman, American Military University
Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently suggested that reports of sexual assault be investigated solely by law enforcement. “And if a student rapes a fellow student that has got to be understood to be a very serious crime. It has got to get outside of the school and have a police investigation,” he said during a forum in Iowa.
Sanders’ proposal is similar to the Safe Campus Act of 2015 sponsored by Representatives Sessions, Salomon, and Granger, all Republicans. This act would prohibit schools from taking action on an alleged sexual assault unless a law enforcement investigation had taken place.
Such agreement across party lines is rare and could lead some people to believe that such proposals are a good way to address the issue of campus rape.
Sanders’ proposal and the Safe Campus Act would result in fewer victims reporting assaults and fewer victims receiving needed medical and psychological counseling.
If these laws are implemented and schools are forced to notify police of sexual assaults, student victims may be even more hesitant to report these crimes. Students will know that reporting a sexual assault means being involved in a police investigation, which may or may not be their desired course of action.
While I believe all sexual crimes should be investigated and that police officers, not educators, are the most qualified individuals to pursue such investigations, it is ultimately up to the victim to decide what action he or she wants to take. Victims should not be forced through such laws to involve police.
Institutions Have Much Room for Improvement
Sanders’ comments and the Safe Campus Act both stem from publicized reports of colleges mishandling sexual assault allegations within their communities. There is overwhelming evidence that many colleges and universities are doing a poor job of responding to these complaints.
As of December 30, 2015, 159 post-secondary institutions were under investigation by the Department of Education (DOE) for their handling of sexual assault investigations. The media is rife with reports of students complaining and even suing institutions because these students are dissatisfied with the college’s handling of sexual assault reports.
An Inside Higher Ed article points out that accused students are filing and winning lawsuits claiming they were denied due process when they were disciplined by schools for allegedly committing sexual assaults.
It is beyond dispute that there are problems with the way colleges have been handling reports of sexual assault, but forcing students to file a formal police report to seek justice is not the right solution.
The Benefits of Institutions Handling Report of Sexual Assault
Students who are sexually assaulted face more challenges than sexual assault victims in general. Even more so than sexual assault in general, almost all rapes on campus involve people who are known to each other. This means that a victim may have to face the assailant in class, in the dining room, in their dorm, or in any number of places where students gather.
While these victims face additional issues, they also have more options and resources available to them to help deal with the ramifications of assault. Student health and counseling centers provide medical care, counseling, and support specifically designed for college students – often at low or no cost.
Campus adjudication systems provide students protection and some measure of justice even if they choose not to report the assault to law enforcement. Schools can prohibit accused students from contacting their accusers, as well as make efforts to rearrange class schedules and living arrangements. And, while not as severe as a criminal conviction, a finding of responsibility for a sexual assault can result in expulsion. Additionally, college disciplinary records are exempt from FERPA so other schools, future potential employers, and others can be notified of the student’s conduct.
Improve Policies, But Don’t Restrict Victims’ Reporting Options
The fact that accusers, the accused, DOE, and advocacy groups are all dissatisfied with how institutions of higher learning handle these cases demonstrates that colleges and universities need to dramatically change how they handle sexual assault accusations.
In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, DOE called for colleges and universities to conduct sexual assault investigations that are “prompt, thorough and impartial.” Schools must hire trained and experienced Title IX coordinators and investigators or hire qualified independent investigators to conduct such inquiries.
These investigators need to be skilled interviewers and cognizant of the special factors impacting college-aged victims. They should be educated about the physical evidence that may exist in a sexual assault case and keep up-to-date on technical advances that can help determine and prove what happened under difficult circumstances.
The disciplinary boards used by schools to adjudicate these cases must also be educated about sexual assault. Board members must be aware of issues including rape trauma syndrome and the myths and stereotypes that persist regarding sexual assault victims and perpetrators.
[Related Article: Sexual Assault: Male Survivor Myths and Alarming Numbers]
While there is general agreement among educators and politicians that colleges and universities must improve how they investigate and adjudicate reports of sexual assault, this should not be used as an excuse to limit a victim’s reporting options. Victims of sexual assault, on or off campus, should be afforded every opportunity to report what happened to them so they can receive necessary medical treatment, emotional support, and the justice they deserve.
About the Author: Timothy Hardiman is a 23-year veteran of the NYPD. He retired as an Inspector serving as the Commanding Officer of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx. Hardiman has extensive investigative experience having served as the Commanding Officer of the 71 St. Detective Squad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Special Victims Squad. He continues to write and lecture on sexual assault investigative techniques.