Colleges handle sexual assaults inadequately, senators told

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Colleges are not equipped to handle allegations of sexual assault on their own and should routinely work with local police to investigate criminal complaints, one expert told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Too often, colleges operate in a vacuum and “act as judge and jury” in cases involving serious crimes, said Peg Langhammer, the head of Day One, a Rhode Island-based sexual-assault-resource center. More frequent collaboration with law enforcement would help to define what campuses should handle, Langhammer said.

“They tend to replace any effective reporting or investigation or prosecution on the criminal side,” she said. “The most that might happen is an individual might be suspended or even expelled, but then (they are) free to go to another institution.”

Langhammer and other experts testified at a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on the role of police in addressing campus sexual assaults. They also emphasized the importance of collaboration between colleges and police.

The hearing came amid a national discussion about the need for change in the way universities handle sexual assaults and other crimes, a topic explored in the ongoing series “Campus Insecurity,” a joint investigation by The Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center.

The series, which takes a national look at how colleges handle crimes, illuminates many of the points discussed Tuesday.

Some of the conversation focused on a recent Rolling Stone magazine story that detailed a gang rape of a freshman woman at the University of Virginia. Late last week, the magazine said there appeared to be inaccuracies in its report and that it had lost faith in the reliability of its primary source.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has sponsored legislation concerning campus sexual assault and who testified briefly Tuesday, said that despite the ambiguity surrounding the Rolling Stone story, she is still concerned that UVA did not expel students who were found responsible for sexual assault in other cases.

“That is, and remains, shocking,” Gillibrand said.

It also is routine on many college campuses.

The investigation by The Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center showed that colleges often issue light punishment for serious crimes such as sexual assault and physical violence. Nearly three-quarters of the punishments at schools examined during the investigation were probation or a warning.

Some offenders were required to write essays, and the schools often did not require those students to miss class. Students were expelled 7 percent of the time.

The investigation also showed that campus discipline often happens in secret, without the involvement of police. A review of disciplinary records provided by 25 colleges showed that of 158 cases in which students were found responsible for sexual assault, seven resulted in criminal charges.

Increasing reports and criminal prosecutions is Southern Oregon University’s goal, said Angela Fleischer, the college’s assistant director of student support and intervention for confidential advising, during Tuesday’s hearing. In partnership with local police in Ashland, Ore., the college created a reporting program that allows students to report anonymously or pause investigations.

“Again, we’re always going with what they prefer,” Fleischer said, something that builds trust among victims.

Her office always defers to a victim’s wishes, she said. When a student wants to report to police, Fleischer explains the legal process and will go with the student for support. If a student doesn’t want to report to police, Fleischer said she explains the available on-campus options.

About 76 percent of students who report through the college’s confidential reporting program end up reporting to police, Fleischer said.

Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are expected to reintroduce legislation next year that would require colleges and local police to detail each group’s responsibilities in responding to campus crime.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a co-sponsor of McCaskill’s bill, said Tuesday that it’s time for on- and off-campus sexual assaults to be treated the same.

“The sooner it’s treated the same way, the sooner that the message is going to get out that you can’t get away with something on a campus that you couldn’t get away with somewhere else,” Grassley said.

SPLC staff writer Sara Gregory can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.

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A stranger sexually assaulted this Ohio State University student near campus in May, but OSU did not put out a crime alert to warn others.