Is Reporting Campus Sex Assaults to the Police Discouraged? a Senator Asks

June 24, 2014

Whether victims of sexual assault on college campuses are being discouraged from going to the police was a central topic of debate on Monday among participants in a roundtable discussion held here by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

The gathering was the last of three such roundtables on campus sexual assault held by the senator, a Missouri Democrat who plans to introduce legislation to improve colleges’ responses to sexual assault.

The discussions have come at a time when colleges, under pressure from activists and the White House, are grappling with how to carry out their legal responsibility to investigate and respond to students’ reports of sexual violence. The Education Department is now investigating more than 60 colleges for possible violations of gender-equity law involving alleged sexual misconduct.

Previous roundtables in the series have focused on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex, and other federal laws that apply to how colleges deal with and report sexual assault and other crimes. On Monday the conversation included discussions of whether campuses should issue timely warnings about sexual assaults, and what types of training on sexual assault both local and campus law-enforcement officers should have.

Senator McCaskill questioned whether there was a "bias" among college officials, victims’ advocates, and even other students against reporting campus sexual assaults to the police. She asked, "Is it fair to say sexual-assault victims are being discouraged from reporting to law enforcement?"

One of the participants, Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale law student and co-founder of Know Your IX, said that when she reported her sexual assault to university officials five or six years ago, she was explicitly told not to go to the police. However, Ms. Brodsky added that what each survivor wants is different.

"Some people want public vindication through the courts," she said. "Some people just want an extension on their English paper, or to not have to see their rapist in their dorm the following day."

Getting the Evidence

Law-enforcement officials at the discussion emphasized the importance of victims' coming to the police sooner rather than later.

Jennifer Gaffney, of the New York County district attorney’s office, said students who report sexual assaults often are told of the negatives associated with pursuing criminal charges, such as the possibility of a lack of closure and the fact that cases can go on for years, but they are not told of the positives.

The positives, according to Ms. Gaffney, who is deputy chief of the special victim’s bureau in the prosecutor’s office, include that evidence can be gathered more quickly and that the result of a successful prosecution of the attacker is more permanent than actions a campus might take.

Ms. Gaffney said a delay in going to the police makes it difficult for investigators to collect evidence that could make a case succeed in court.

"Just help me get some evidence from the get-go," she said. "Students come after they are upset with a weak administrative process," she said, and by then much of the evidence is no longer available.

Victims’ advocates, however, argued that they need to be truthful with victims about how effective going to law enforcement will be.

Options for Victims

Nancy Chi Cantalupo, a research fellow at the Victim Rights Law Center and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, said that not all criminal-justice systems near colleges can properly handle sexual-assault cases.

"Not everyone has a criminal-justice system that is structured to give multiple options" to victims, she said, "and to hold onto evidence for years." Options that some systems offer, she said, include having someone who can tape a victim’s statement, subpoena people for evidence, get a rape kit processed in a timely matter, and speak with law-enforcement officials who have been trained to work with sexual-assault victims.

"All of those things are relatively uncommon," Ms. Cantalupo said.

Senator McCaskill hopes to take the information she received during the three roundtables and use it to craft legislation on college sexual assault.

For the legislation, Ms. McCaskill is considering including mandatory training of people who investigate campus sexual assaults; allowing more options for penalizing colleges found not to be in compliance, other than total loss of federal funds; and potentially requiring students’ transcripts to list any findings of responsibility for sexual assault.

Ms. McCaskill said she had been meeting weekly with a bipartisan group of senators and may not file her legislation until after the August recess. The timing depends on how quickly she receives survey results on campus sexual assault back from colleges.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers are also putting scrutiny on the problem of sexual assault on campuses. The Senate education committee has announced that it will hold a hearing on the issue on Thursday.