WASHINGTON, June 10, 2014 – Rumer Willis asked Miss Nevada, Nia Sanchez a question about campus sexual assault during the Miss USA pageant Sunday night. Willis observed that 19 percent of female undergraduates are sexually assaulted, then asked Sanchez why the issue is ignored and what can be done about it.
Sanchez, a taekwondo black-belt replied, “I believe that some colleges may potentially be afraid of having a bad reputation and that would be a reason it could be swept under the rug … More awareness is very important so that women can learn to protect themselves. Myself, as a fourth-degree black belt, I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself, and I think that’s something we should really start to implement for a lot of women.”
Sanchez is absolutely correct that campus administrators are afraid. Pushed by women’s groups and the government, they are under pressure to convict more male students in campus tribunals. Some of those men are suing, and many are winning. The inevitable response of university administrators is to erect a barricade of lawyers.
The negative blowback to Sanchez was almost immediate:
“Miss Iowa says today’s youth are narcissistic followed by Miss Nevada who wants to end rape with self defense classes Really? Sick #MissUSA”
“sorry miss Nevada. we do not need to teach women how to better defend ourselves. We need to teach men not to feel entitled to rape #missusa”
“Why the hell should I have to become Bruce Lee just because I want to get an advanced degree?” demanded Rebecca Rose at Jezebel.
The 19 percent figure thrown out by Willis is the number that Vice President Joe Biden used in announcing the report of a task force on campus sexual assault. “One in five of every one of those young women who is dropped off for that first day of school, before they finish school, will be assaulted in her college years,” said Biden.
Biden’s source is the Justice Department’s Campus Sexual Assault Study, which polled students at two large public universities. It received 5,446 web-based responses from women aged 18 to 25; 19.7 percent reported being victims of a sexual assault, attempted or completed.
That number is hard to verify nationally. The statistical problems of relying on a survey from just two universities are large. There was no comparison with similar women not at a university, making it impossible to say that universities are more or less dangerous as sites of sexual assault than anyplace else. The definition of “sexual assault” includes everything from verbal assault to rape.
The survey can’t be taken as definitive. It is, however, consistent with other limited surveys, suggesting that there really is an above 15 percent rate of campus sexual assault.
Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has made the topic of sexual assault one of the defining issues of her career. The former sex-crimes prosecutor has teamed with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in an attempt to reform the way colleges deal with allegations of rape on campus.
Among other things, they want to create databases to inform prospective students and their families about crime on campus, to create rules for punishing universities that do not comply with laws on reporting, and to determine how universities and local law enforcement should work together on the issue. They are conducting a series of roundtables to examine existing law as it pertains to college campuses, including Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013.
In response to pressures by McCaskill, the Obama Administration, women’s rights organizations and various federal agencies, colleges have become more aggressive at going after men accused of rape. Campus tribunals often punish them based on a preponderance of evidence rather than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard may be appropriate in issuing a restraining order, but it exposes universities to law suits when used as the basis of disciplinary actions, including expulsion.
In their attempts to act quickly on rape allegations, campus administrators have been charged with denying male students accused of rape the opportunity to present a defense. They’ve also been accused of railroading accused students and destroying their reputations in contradiction to proof. The men accused in these cases are taking university administrations to court and winning:
- A student at Brown University charged that the school interfered with his efforts to clear his name under pressure from his accuser’s father, a major donor to the school. The university settled.
- A judge prohibited Duke University from expelling a student convicted by administrators of rape when it turned out that pressure had been put on the campus tribunal to “get tough” on rapists.
- A Holy Cross policy held that if sex occurred when both students were drunk, the male was responsible. That finding was overturned and the expelled student readmitted with no adverse marks on his transcript.
- A Denison student sued on several grounds, including violation of rights, after he was found guilty by a campus tribunal in spite of successfully passing a polygraph exam. The university settled.
The case of the Duke University lacrosse players was one of the most well-publicized incidents of sexual assault charges brought against university students. Durham County district attorney Mike NIfong eventually lost his job and was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct, but the university also acted disgracefully. In the words of K.C. Johnson, a Brooklyn history professor who wrote a book about the case:
At its core, the lacrosse case was a story of three Duke students — Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann — accused of a heinous crime that never occurred, and their impressive ability to endure a false arrest and intense, often malicious, public scrutiny. …
The lacrosse case generated the backlash it did because it illustrated the breakdown of institutions that purport to offer a dispassionate commitment to the truth. Professors at an elite university, obsessed with themes of race, class, and gender, abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process to exploit their own students’ distress. Journalists from the New York Times to the local newspaper in Durham seemed to view their central task as propping up Nifong’s case by any means necessary, lest a false accusation contradict their editors’ (and many of their readers’) ideological biases. North Carolina civil-rights activists set aside their longstanding calls for fair treatment of criminal suspects to bolster whatever version of events Mangum happened to be offering.
The three lacrosse players eventually sued Duke University, charging it with a conspiracy to frame them. The university settled.
The idea that universities sustain a “rape culture” has become firmly embedded in gender studies departments and university administrations, but a legally useful definition that can be used to create policy is missing. The battle on college campuses to root out and punish sexual assault has been entirely transformed into a political battle, not a battle for any kind of justice and fairness for students. Now that universities have gone behind the legal barricades, expect only an un-ending stream of victims.
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