WASHINGTON ― It’s estimated that only a fraction of campus sexual assault victims go to police. Senators want to know why.
A Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Tuesday focused on the role of law enforcement in campus sexual assault cases.
“I am concerned that law enforcement is being marginalized when it comes to the crime of campus sexual assault,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the subcommittee chairman. “I’m concerned that the specter of flawed law enforcement overshadows the harm of marginalized law enforcement.”
The hearing comes in the wake of a Rolling Stone article describing a gang rape alleged to have occurred in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The magazine later acknowledged mistakes in its reporting.
Some sexual assault victims have said they prefer to work within their university system to seek disciplinary action against the perpetrator, such as expulsion, without the stress of pressing criminal charges. But there have been complaints that universities have encouraged victims to not seek criminal action because they want to protect the university’s reputation or that schools aren’t prepared to adequately adjudicate such cases.
Whitehouse said victims are victimized again if they are steered away from law enforcement based on uninformed choices. Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general in his home state, said evidence shows that most men who commit these crimes are serial offenders — and a threat to public safety. He said students have a right to know that delays in opening an investigation and collecting evidence could make the case difficult to prove later.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that would force colleges to have a memorandum of understanding with their local law enforcement over handling such cases. She said the ultimate goal is that 100 percent of victims report to police. “But, time and again, I have heard from far too many survivors of campus sexual assault that they have felt re-victimized by the process of trying to seek justice for the crime committed against them,” Gillibrand said.
McCaskill said the criminal justice system has been “very bad” in its handling of victims ― much worse than the military or campuses ― and that has left many victims’ advocates with the belief that campus sexual assault cases are better handled within a college’s system. Complicating and confusing the situation, she said, is that both the criminal justice system and the federal Title IX education law dictate how the cases should be handled.
The legislation is supported by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. He said a rape committed on a college campus should be treated the same way it would be off campus.
“It’s high time to make sure that a crime is a crime wherever it’s committed,” Grassley said.
Reports of sexual assault on campus rose 50 percent from 2009 to 2012, Whitehouse said, citing federal data. He said the vast majority of offenses go unreported.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 women is assaulted during their college years.
The Obama administration has taken steps in the last year to highlight the problem and to pressure universities to better assist victims.
Both McCaskill and Gillibrand said they are concerned that the Rolling Stone story may be held up as a reason not to believe survivors when they come forward. McCaskill called it “bad journalism” and said rape is not a crime with rampant false reporting by victims.
“It has never been about this one school and it is painfully clear that colleges across the country have a real problem with how they are handling, or not handling, cases of sexual assault on their campuses,” Gillibrand said.