The Safe Campus Act

Dana Ettinger, JHU:

The Republican Party has a questionable track record when it comes to sexual assault. Misogynistic comments from candidates and elected officials are not uncommon. That makes the Safe Campus Act, a new bill intended to fix the campus sexual assault crisis, a surprising departure. At first glance, it looks like Republicans are finally trying to create meaningful legislation to help victims and improve the messy system currently in place on college campuses.

Unfortunately, some of the language in the bill is dubious at best. One of the most controversial aspects is the provision that prevents colleges from conducting their own investigations unless victims of assault also submit a report to local law enforcement. Without an investigation, colleges are unable to determine appropriate disciplinary action for the accused assaulter or make accommodations for victims. On the one hand, university administrators are not detectives. They lack the resources and training to conduct a proper investigation. The bill also allows schools to set their own standards for proof, meaning that the threshold for evidence may or may not be the same as in a courtroom. It also means there is no uniform standard across the country.

On the other hand, forcing victims to report to the police removes a lot of agency from them in terms of how far they want to proceed legally. Most victims’ advocacy groups point to this part of the legislation as the most damaging. It traps the university as well – if a student does not want to go to the police, that is his or her prerogative. However, that prevents the school from carrying out an investigation of their own into the incident, which may have violated multiple student conduct rules. Further provisions prevent any disciplinary action on the part of the school toward the alleged attacker without an investigation in line with certain standards. Thus, colleges’ hands are tied and victims get let down.

Many parts, including the interdiction on campus investigations, conflict with stated campus policy. At Johns Hopkins, the administration worked for several months to come up with a new sexual assault policy. The policy includes what it calls “interim measures” that can be made available to both victim and accused: moving residences; adjusting work, academic, or exam schedules; suspension or bans from campus; and no-contact orders. These are designed to protect and support victims. The policy clearly states that these measures are to be made available “following an incident or while a matter under these Procedures is pending” and “whether or not the complainant reports the matter to Campus Safety and Security or law enforcement, or files a complaint with the University.” Under the Safe Campus Act, none of these options would be available to students until an investigation was underway on campus, an investigation that could only begin after a report to the Baltimore Police department.

There are several consequences for this. First, reporting figures for sexual assault are notoriously low – less than 5% for incidents on college campuses, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Fear, intimidation and shame often silence survivors’ voices and prevent them from speaking out or reporting incidents. Low conviction rates and an abundance of horror stories about the way police treat survivors also contribute to the silence. These and any number of other factors might prevent someone from wanting to report an incident to law enforcement; however, many of the “interim measures” afforded by the Johns Hopkins policy would likely be welcomed for the sake of mental and emotional wellbeing. By removing access to these services, the Safe Campus Act punishes victims for not wanting to engage in a system that is infamous for failing them.

Many of the proponents of the Act claim it will help prevent false accusations. This is propaganda. Only 2-8% of allegations of sexual assault are false, a tiny number in the face of the countless assaults that go unreported out of fear. Supporters also claim colleges are ill equipped to conduct investigations into sensitive matters such as sexual assault, fraught as it is in normal legal proceedings. These claims are harder to dismiss.
A balance must be struck. The right to determine to whom and under what circumstances to tell his or her story must remain with the victim. Forcing him or her to go to the police in order to get relief on campus is callous and uncompassionate at best. One section of the bill requires training for reporting and bystander intervention for university staff and administrators. This should be expanded for those immediately involved in investigative proceedings. Teaching college administrators how to conduct better investigations would be a far better legislative agenda than taking away choice and agency from survivors.

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