Pop quiz: should you tell the police if you think someone is responsible for a pattern of sexual assaults?

Well, that ain’t how they do things down Oklahoma State way.

In the past, I’ve made the point that universities shouldn’t be adjudicating sexual assault claims. Both because they’re bad at it and because they can’t actually take these people off the streets.

Now, Oklahoma State has provided an object lesson, by showing how much can go wrong when you let a bunch of amateur investigators pretend to do the jobs of police and courts.

Consider what happened at Oklahoma State after five different students reported sexual assaults by the same alleged perpetrator.

You would assume that a disciplinary committee at an institution faced with multiple reports of sexual assault by one person might say to themselves, “Gee, the training video we watched didn’t really prepare us to do the proper investigation of sexual assault at this scale, so maybe we ought to call police.”

Surely a bunch of amateurs, with no authority to subpoena, no ability to collect or test forensics–certainly they wouldn’t attempt to identify and punish a possible serial attacker, would they? From the Student Press Law Center’s story:

The university conducted the first of five interviews with victims on Nov. 12 and held a hearing on Nov. 30. OSU’s Student Conduct committee is made up of students, faculty and staff, according to its website. Each hearing is heard by a panel of one representative from each group.

[The alleged perpetrator] Cochran’s hearing was what the school calls a ‘level three hearing,’ held in instances where suspension or expulsion is a potential outcome. Both sides are allowed to present witnesses and evidence before taking questions from the panel and the other party.

Oh. Well, but the good news is, they didn’t need to bother with any of that nasty objective gathering of evidence. Because they found him “responsible” for four counts of sexual assault. (What happened in the fifth instance — where the victim testified, the accuser didn’t, and still no assault was found to have happened — is anybody’s guess. And all we can do is guess, since disciplinary hearings, unlike real-world trials, take place in secret.)

But yes, four cases. And they issued what is almost the strongest sanction they could issue. The alleged perpetrator:

was found responsible for four violations of Section III(D)(21) (sexual misconduct) of the OSU Student Code of Conduct and was suspended for three years commencing December 14, 2012 (end of semester) and was ordered to have no contact with any of the complainants.

Yes, that’s right. The punishment for being found liable for four counts of sexual misconduct was to finish out the semester with the victims and then come back after they’ve graduated, and we won’t tell anybody. Because it’s not like serial sexual attackers do this ever again. (Wait, what does “serial” mean again?)

At this point, the story never would have gone public, except for a tip to The Daily O’Collegian. They called the police, and the police called OSU administrators — who, until they were shamed into releasing the outcome of the student conduct hearing, had no intention of ever telling anybody what happened, including their own police.

Meanwhile, the police did their own investigation. As it turns out, the number of victims, according to the Stillwater police, is in the dozens: “Based on interviews with other witnesses who have come forward, [Stillwater Police Capt. Randy] Dickerson said he believes there could be as many as three dozen victims.”

Oklahoma State Vice President and General Counsel Gary Clark’s explanation for why they didn’t call the police after the hearing? “What would the police be able to do with that information?” Clark told The Oklahoman. “Nothing, as far as I can tell.”

Actually, Stillwater police did do something. They have charged the alleged perpetrator for three counts of sexual battery. Using an entirely different set of sources.

There are a number of possible morals to this story.

One is that, if you find someone you believe to have committed four sexual assaults, there are probably other claims, if you bother to look.

Another is that Oklahoma State was wrong when it claimed it was unable to turn this information over to investigators, and the Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte addresses the legal problems with their rationale on our FERPA FACT blog. So I wanted to use this space to make a different, but related point.

The moral I want to talk about is this: Campus disciplinary processes ought to be adjudicating plagiarism and library fines and basically nothing else. The idea that these processes could be used to meaningfully adjudicate claims of sexual assault is a joke.

Universities don’t have prisons. The only thing a university conduct board can create when finding a claim of sexual assault has merit is a rapist with free time on his hands.

In the last two years, the Department of Education’s concern has been that not enough people are found liable of sexual assault by disciplinary committees, so they lowered the standard of proof. Instead of “clear and convincing evidence,” most institutions now require only a “preponderance of the evidence” to find someone “responsible,” whatever that means, for sexual assault.

But something the Department of Education hasn’t bothered to ask is whether these committees are even capable of punishing someone adequately for sexual assault.

Recently, our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have been involved in a debate over that lower standard of proof the Department of Education set for sexual assault cases. While they’re right to raise questions about the adequacy of the standard, fixing the standard won’t fix the problem.

To me, this is like saying we have a gun, and we’re handing it to an infant, and we’re arguing over whether to take the safety off first. I suppose it’s safer to leave the safety on, yes. But babies shouldn’t have guns.

Similarly, universities should not be creating substitute mock justice systems to adjudicate serious crimes. They’re no more qualified than the baby. And perhaps the fact that schools like Oklahoma State choose to do so is a vestige of a society that, historically, has not treated sexual assault seriously in the academic context.

If a university declined to tell the police about murder, or arson, or kidnapping, or armed robbery, we would be rightly disgusted. We would not entertain the university’s defenses that the amateur investigators on its conduct board attended an hour-long training session on arson evidence, or that they held a mock kidnapping trial and thus should be considered adequate substitutes for real law enforcement.

Why is it, then, that we permit universities to investigate sexual assaults–let alone serial sexual assaults? Why do we permit them to impose a sanction like, “walk away from here scott free and come back in three years, presumably because we don’t think sexual violence is a crime anyone performs more than four times?”

Is rape really less serious than armed robbery? Should we feel better about amateur investigators dabbling in sexual assault investigations than we would about shrugging and saying, “Oh, don’t worry about that gang violence, I told Student Conduct.”

Or is it time to admit that universities are poor substitutes for law enforcement when the sanction for being found liable for multiple sexual assaults is being told to return in three years, to join a fresh crop of potential victims?

 

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  3. I keep hearing from defenders of the current system that Oklahoma State is an aberration and we shouldn’t use it as an example. Okay, maybe. And maybe Eastern Michigan University was an aberration when they told the campus the rape and murder of a student in the dorm wasn’t “foul play.” And maybe Ohio State was an aberration when they didn’t want to put out a Clery alert after three rapes in a dorm because the victims knew their attackers. And maybe the University of Memphis was an aberration when they cut the newspaper’s funding after the newspaper called them out for not releasing a report of a rape. And I guess Penn State and the military academies are aberrations. And Virginia Tech setting aside a student affairs punishment against an athlete for rape as excessive, that was an aberration. And the University of California letting people they found responsible for sexual assault transfer out without telling the new schools, that was an aberration. Oh, and Harvard letting a guy accused of sexual assault and caught peeping on women in the showers take a year off instead of discipline, that was an aberration. And the University of South Florida covering up reports of sexual assaults by a basketball player, that was an aberration. And Miami of Ohio putting a student on “conduct probation” after finding he had assaulted a sleeping female classmate, that was an aberration. And Indiana University finding a student responsible for rape but suspending him for one semester–over the summer, when he wasn’t likely to attend school anyway–that was an aberration. So guess what I’m wondering is, given that these institutions hide behind FERPA and we never find out about these cases unless someone speaks out against the wishes of the school, and there’s nobody in a position to audit how common these proceedings are–about how many more aberrations will it take for someone in a position of authority to admit this system is completely screwed up beyond all recognition?

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  5. Sam says:

    Also, when I did try to report it to the police after the hearing, the school refused to release my statements to me and told me they would not let anyone look at them without a subpoena and told me I could not try to pursue due to me signing saying I wouldn’t. I tried for several weeks to retrieve my papers and they would not budge. And several weeks after the hearing more girls had told me they also had the same thing happen to them with different or the same man, and they said they had the same outcome; they said that the guy did not do it and would not pursue any charges. This proved to me that the college cared more about their image, than their students.
    Several weeks after the hearing the guy who assaulted me had his mother contact me and she told me she had gotten all the accusations I had against her son and if I didn’t stop trying to pursue then she would go after me. I asked the school if they had released the papers to his mom, and they never gave me an answer.

  6. Sam says:

    I agree with this article. I was sexually assaulted on my campus, and I did not report it until a month later because I knew they guy who assaulted me and I was afraid to talk about it. I one day got the courage to go and talk to security about what happened. One guy was in the office and I wanted to talk to a female but I ended up breaking down and telling him anyway. He had me write out a statement, and called the cops. As I was writing the statement he made several calls about it without telling me who he was calling. He came back into the room I was in and proceeded to tell me I could not talk to the guy or I would get into trouble, and if I attempted to I would be arrested. This upset me at the time because even though I was afraid of him and wanted him charged for what he did, all I could think about was how I couldn’t tell him about what him doing this to me had done not only mentally, but also physically. But, I expressed with the security guard how upset I was that he made several calls without informing me what he was doing first. I sat in the security office for over an hour waiting for the cop and cried the entire time, and at that point I had already called my parents to pick me up because I was very upset and all I wanted to do was go home. The security officer told me to go back to my room and that he would call me when the officer got there. An hour after I left he called me and said the officer was on his way. I went to the office and waited another 30 min, and while I was there more security officers had arrived and continued to tell me that I would be arrested if I talked to him. My parents finally arrives and the police officer had not gotten there yet, so I told them I wanted to leave and didn’t want to wait any longer. Before I left they told me I had to sign a paper saying I would not charge the guy and would not follow pursuit of charges in or outside school and I had to if I wanted to leave before talking to the cop. I was very upset and only wanted to go home at this point so I signed it and left. Not long after a member of the discipline committee told me they were going to pursue on-campus charges and asked if I would help, so I did. I gave them the statements and let them know every possible detail I could remember and even had another girl who had police records of what he had did to her, turn in her police documents and her own personal statement as well. When the time came I finally was able to look at all the documents involved right before the hearing. The security officer I had told my story too had lied in his statements about what I had said and acted in the security office. And I was able to read the guy’s statement. He said he did not do it and that I was lying and he had his girlfriend sign for it. This upset me, but I was confident they would realize he was lying, especially with past records of his. The time came and I gave my statements to a panel and he his, and we had to wait. I figure they would at least make him live off campus to keep other students safe, but I got a letter saying they believed he did not do it and they would not do anything about it. This crushed me and since that day has had a negative affect on me. I have to see him walk around campus like he did nothing, and I couldn’t pursue charges because the security office made me sign saying I wouldn’t or I couldn’t leave. But it did not end there, he mocked me, came after me often, and even broke into my room one night. I was scared, and he had hit me several times when he broke in. The next day I reported to a trusted faculty member and they made me go back to the security office. They told me they would look into it, and I never heard from them again. His frat brothers had backed him up and told security that I lied and he never left their site, even though it was very late into the night when this happened. Over all, I feel like the school let him go because they did not want their image to be marred, and they didn’t want to have to report an actual rapist being on campus. To this day I still have to see him, walking around. But, I did have one option and I took it. I put an order of protection on him, and a few months later he lied and said I had hurt him a year before and put his family as a witness and was able to put a counter order of protection on me. This was a lie, but my lawyer told me I could do nothing because his family would back him up, so I just let it happen. So, instead of him being in jail where he should be, he is walking around, probably praying on other innocent women, and was able to make me look like a terrible person by spreading horrible rumors about me and getting my name into the court system for something I never did.