Colleges handle sexual assaults inadequately, senators told

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Colleges are not equipped to handle allegations of sexual assault on their own and shouldroutinely work with local police to investigate criminal complaints, one expert told a Senatecommittee Tuesday.

Too often, colleges operate in a vacuum and “act as judge and jury” in cases involving seriouscrimes, said Peg Langhammer, the head of Day One, a Rhode Island-based sexual-assault-resourcecenter. More frequent collaboration with law enforcement would help to define what campuses shouldhandle, Langhammer said.

“They tend to replace any effective reporting or investigation or prosecution on the criminalside,” she said. “The most that might happen is an individual might be suspended or even expelled,but then (they are) free to go to another institution.”

Langhammer and other experts testified at a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on the role ofpolice in addressing campus sexual assaults. They also emphasized the importance of collaborationbetween colleges and police.

The hearing came amid a national discussion about the need for change in the way universitieshandle sexual assaults and other crimes, a topicexplored in the ongoing series “Campus Insecurity,” a joint investigation by The Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center.

The series, which takes a national look at how colleges handle crimes, illuminates many of thepoints discussed Tuesday.

Some of the conversation focused on a recent Rolling Stone magazine story that detailed a gang rape of a freshman woman at theUniversity of Virginia. Late last week, the magazine said there appeared to be inaccuracies in itsreport and that it had lost faith in the reliability of its primary source.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has sponsored legislation concerning campus sexual assaultand who testified briefly Tuesday, said that despite the ambiguity surrounding the Rolling Stone story, she is still concerned that UVA did not expel students who were foundresponsible for sexual assault in other cases.

“That is, and remains, shocking,” Gillibrand said.

It also is routine on many college campuses.

The investigation by The Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center showed that colleges often issue lightpunishment for serious crimes such as sexual assault and physical violence. Nearly three-quartersof the punishments at schools examined during the investigation were probation or a warning.

Some offenders were required to write essays, and the schools often did not require thosestudents to miss class. Students were expelled 7 percent of the time.

The investigation also showed that campus discipline often happens in secret, without theinvolvement of police. A review of disciplinary records provided by 25 colleges showed that of 158cases in which students were found responsible for sexual assault, seven resulted in criminalcharges.

Increasing reports and criminal prosecutions is Southern Oregon University’s goal, said AngelaFleischer, the college’s assistant director of student support and intervention for confidentialadvising, during Tuesday’s hearing. In partnership with local police in Ashland, Ore., thecollege created a reporting program that allows students to report anonymously or pauseinvestigations.

“Again, we’re always going with what they prefer,” Fleischer said, something that builds trustamong victims.

Her office always defers to a victim’s wishes, she said. When a student wants to report topolice, Fleischer explains the legal process and will go with the student for support. If a studentdoesn’t want to report to police, Fleischer said she explains the available on-campus options.

About 76 percent of students who report through the college’s confidential reporting program endup reporting to police, Fleischer said.

Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are expected to reintroduce legislation next yearthat would require colleges and local police to detail each group’s responsibilities in respondingto campus crime.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a co-sponsor of McCaskill’s bill, said Tuesday that it’s time foron- and off-campus sexual assaults to be treated the same.

“The sooner it’s treated the same way, the sooner that the message is going to get out that youcan’t get away with something on a campus that you couldn’t get away with somewhere else,” Grassleysaid.

SPLC staff writer Sara Gregory can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.