I should not be writing this blog post. I planned to get up and work on a journal article and prepare for a conference call I have this afternoon. But after reading the news, I am appalled once again at the behavior of two higher education institutions related to a student’s accusation of rape.
The situation is as follows: Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg, a new student at St. Mary’s, reported being raped by a member of the Notre Dame football team. (St. Mary’s is the “sister school” of Notre Dame, which used to be exclusively male.) The allegation was reported to the Notre Dame campus police, who took Seeberg to the local hospital for treatment and a rape kit. She provided two written statements and pointed out a player from his picture on a Notre Dame roster. She also received assistance from the St. Mary’s campus program for victims of rape and sexual assault.
What did the university do next? Let’s talk about what didn’t happen:
- Ms. Seeberg was never taken to local police to give them a statement and report the felony crime to them.
- Neither St. Mary’s nor Notre Dame reported the alleged rape to the police.
- The football player was not suspended from the team or the university pending investigation; he played in the next game, a few days after the alleged assault.
- The football player has not been charged with a crime.
How do we understand this? Well, here is Notre Dame’s statement:
“Any time we are made aware of a student potentially violating university policies, we implement a process that is careful and thorough so that facts can be gathered, rumors and misinformation can be sorted out, and an informed decision can be made about what action to take — if action is warranted. We take our obligation seriously, we involve law enforcement officials as appropriate, and we act in accordance with the facts.”
I must say that it is horrifying to me to see rape talked about as a violation of university rules. That approach equates rape with cheating on a test, disrupting class, or smoking pot in the dorm. Um, no. Just no. Rape is a felony, a violation of state law.
Why don’t universities reach out to involve the local police when a student reports a rape, even though they involve them in the case of other crimes? Universities call in the police when there is a murder or suicide. In fact, we know this because St. Mary’s called the local police when Ms. Seeberg took an overdose of medication and killed herself in her dorm room, just a couple weeks after the alleged rape.
The (lack of) response of the institutions (Notre Dame and St. Mary’s) to the rape allegation makes a difference, as was recognized by Ms. Seeberg herself.
One source said that [Ms. Seeberg] suddenly felt self-conscious on St. Mary’s campus, where the 1,600-member student body is about three-quarters the size of her old high school, Glenbrook North. She feared people would dislike her for accusing a Notre Dame athlete of a sex crime and that she would wear the incident “like a scarlet letter” throughout her college career, the source said.
That she would wear the incident like a scarlet letter, not the football player who was accused of the crime.
To add insult to injury, even after Ms. Seeberg committed suicide, the police handling the investigation were never told about the alleged rape by either St. Mary’s or Notre Dame administrators or campus police. St. Mary’s, for its part, wrote a letter to students and their parents about the student’s death, deleting any mention of suicide, and clarifying, “Although we do not know the cause of her death, we want to stop any potential rumors by stating that no crime occurred on our campus related to her death.” No, as the newspaper reported snarkily, the Notre Dame campus, where the crime of rape was alleged to have occurred, is across the street.
I have several reflections on this mess. First, it is sad when a small school like St. Mary’s, with only 1,664 students enrolled, needs its own rape crisis program. It is a grant-funded program, heavily focused on rape and dating violence prevention and support for survivors of assault. But just imagine what kinds of statistics they have to have to get that grant. As I know from friends who do this work on campuses across the US, more rapes happen on and off campus to college students than you would ever want to imagine. Seriously.
I am also saddened that no one seems to have explained to the student the limitations of not reporting the crime to police. Students are often unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, and many express comfort staying within a campus system that seems more familiar. Yet, the campus system simply is not designed for these kinds of crimes. For example, the rape kit (a very invasive procedure) relates to the criminal justice system, not a campus justice system; it is useless to campus investigators. Why did Ms. Seeberg have a rape kit done, if she was not connected to the police? And in most jurisdictions, if the victim chooses not to testify about the assault, the criminal case does not go forward, even if police have gathered evidence and taken statements. Most rape crisis advocates encourage victims to provide such evidence and records even if they don’t want to prosecute, just in case the perpetrator is involved in another such case in the future and the evidence from the first case can show a pattern of behavior. The Notre Dame website regarding what to do if sexually assaulted is a little less than clear about this, but generally states the same information. Of course, it also offers three on-campus places to go if you have been sexually assaulted, along with an off-campus mental health center. They do not offer contact information for the local police.
I understand why universities want to keep such matters in house--less media coverage, more control over outcomes and information flow, forestalling lawsuits, etc. But colleges and universities should no longer have this kind of response available to them, to the exclusion of involving the proper legal authorities. Reports of rape and sexual assault should be passed along immediately to city or county law enforcement. That is what St. Mary’s supposedly does for rapes that happen on its campus; that should also be the policy for any rapes reported by their students, no matter where they take place. The student can then decide if she would want to press charges / testify in a rape case.
Campus judicial systems are not appropriate places for responding to allegations of rape and sexual assault. Those cases belong in the legal system. Committing violence against another student, staff, or faculty member should have ramifications on campus (i.e., suspension or expulsion, exclusion from campus, being fired, losing a scholarship, being kicked out of a dorm, etc.), but that response should be secondary to a criminal justice response.
Perhaps we need a law that requires campuses to report all violent crimes to law enforcement as soon as a complaint is alleged. I am starting to think this is the only answer.