How to Fix The College Discipline System for Sexual Assault Cases
Colleges and universities are under scrutiny their (mis)handling of sexual assault and interpersonal violence (IPV) cases. High profile schools are being investigated for violating victims’ rights, while at the same time there is a growing movement advocating for increasing the rights and protections of the accused. There have been calls from both sides to take these cases out of the college judicial process and leave it to the courts, but all that will do is take options away from the victim and result in even fewer perpetrators facing accountability.
Both sides are correct—colleges are not equipped to handle these cases. However, it is not because the judicial systems are inherent flawed or a lack of awareness by the people involved—it is because it is impossible to have a system fair to both parties when the people responsible for the different aspects of the case have other interests and responsibilities. To ensure the disciplinary process is followed and fair, a school should hire outside entities to handle the three major components of a case, and allow the college administrators to focus on their responsibilities.
By necessity there will be oversimplification of the issues to make this piece’s length manageable, but I am operating under several assumptions:
- Judicial administrators (JAs) and board members want to have a fair system that reaches the right result and do not intentionally revictimize or perpetuate rape myths.
- The college judicial system is the lowest barrier accountability system available to victims.
- Colleges have dedicated professionals in place to assist victims of interpersonal violence through the process as their only or primary responsibility. (This is more rare than the assumption suggests.)
(In addition, I am only discussing student on student IPV cases and will be gender normative-using “she/her” for victims and “he/him” for perpetrators even though I recognize that these roles are not absolute.)
There are four essential components to any case: the case preparation for each side, the investigation, and the hearing. Each requires a rigid activist committed to the perfect execution of their responsibilities in order for them to be successful. However, each of those by necessity encroaches on the other components.
For that reason, there should be 3 professionals exclusively dedicated to these components without regard or responsibility for the other 2, but with a good relationship with each other in order to assure equal advocacy, transparency and fairness. The JA should “only” be responsible for ensuring due process is followed at a hearing, and that each of the three advocates are engaged in a timely manner. While the JA might be able to assume an additional responsibility (and currently may do all of them,) the only way the JA can be responsible for ensuring fairness and due process is if there is someone else who can fully advocate for each side without concern for the other or for the school’s liability.
Simply put, it is impossible for a school to reduce or eliminate its liability in these cases without outsourcing the advocacy and investigatory responsibilities. As long as an “agent” of the school is working with one side in preparing a case, the school remains at risk of liability from the other side. Schools know this, so even victim advocates are pressured to limit their work to connecting victims with resources and, in the best systems, advocating for “one-sided” accommodations. The advocate may also provide excellent advice in preparing the case, but he or she does so knowing that if the respondent sues that assistance may be used against the school. The victim and respondent advisora needs to be separate from the university, intimately familiar with the college judicial process, and have a good and open relationship with the support resources on campus.
Providing equal and external assistance is crucial since the basis of most claims against a college is “inequitable resources” that resulted in an outcome that breached the school’s duty of care. It is also important that the “outsourced” group not be attorneys and/or not be acting as an attorney to prevent the process from becoming de facto litigation. The judicial process is not a legal process and while these resources will help the parties prepare their cases, get ready for the hearings, and protect their rights and interests it will remain up to the students to present their cases through whatever system is in place.
The last component necessary to increase the fairness is a competent external investigator for each allegation that can interview the parties involved, meet with witnesses, ensure that all evidence is collected, and then prepare a report on those findings to help the parties prepare their statements and/or the board reach a decision. There are some schools, like Harvard, that have been doing this (or something similar) for years, but it is prohibitively expensive for most schools. I believe it is possible to have someone responsible for those investigations that can do them at a much lower cost (and have a few suggestions) but expecting students to gather all that information impartially and without exerting pressure on the people interviewed is unreasonable (and developmentally inappropriate.)
Engaging these outside entities will increase the likelihood that the parties will be able to present their positions fully and clearly, that as much information as possible will be available to get as close to truth and fairness as possible, and limit a school’s liability and giving them clean hands. It would be naïve to ignore the additional costs a school would bear to provide these resources, but compared to the positive impact for the students and the reduction in the liability, the costs would be well worth it.
What do you think? Are schools equipped to help each party prepare adequately while still protecting themselves? Are there other (and better) ways to approach this? Leave a comment or email me at (DaveK@collegejudicialconsultants.com). Be good and be safe.