Editorial | Setting a (minimum) standard
When it comes to sanctions for sexual assault, the Office of Student Conduct needs to set a mandatory minimum for assailants
October 31, 2013, 9:13 pm · Updated October 31, 2013, 11:37 pm·
At Penn, the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime.
When a student reports an instance of sexual assault, he or she goes through a lengthy process of interviews with the Office of Student Conduct. But even if — and when — OSC determines that the alleged assaulter is responsible (the OSC equivalent of “guilty”), there is no prescribed punishment OSC must follow whatsoever — it can range from remedial education and mandating that the assailant cannot speak to the victim to permanent expulsion.
The problem with the lack of any mandatory minimum is that punishments can be incredibly insufficient. Putting someone on probation, for example, is hardly an apt punishment for any type of sexual assault.
Separating two people is not a punishment — it is letting someone who has been deemed responsible off the hook. And while it, like any punishment, is supposed to both bring justice and help the victim, it does a poor job on both counts.
Victims of sexual assault need, at the very least, a period of time during which they are away from their attacker, during which they can be assured that they are safe from the person who assaulted them. Prohibiting the attacker from talking to the victim does not sufficiently separate the two — it is expected that the two will see each other around campus. Considering about 90 percent of college women who are sexually assaulted know their assailants, it is also likely that the two have mutual friends, only increasing the chance that the two will encounter one another again.
Moreover, it’s very easy for the probation to go unenforced and become ineffective. Any violations would have to be reported by the victim. Considering sexual assaults are vastly underreported, it’s likely that violations of probation would be too. Would the victim even want to turn back to OSC, after it had doled out a mere slap on the wrist to the attacker? It’s true that you can have someone walk you to class and back every day, but shouldn’t the process be to help the victim, not force students to change their daily lifestyle?
While those who are alleged to have committed offenses should have certain rights, once someone is convicted, it is mind-boggling that sanction could potentially force the victim to adjust their lifestyle more than the assailant.
Given all this, we believe that anyone found guilty of sexual assault should be suspended from campus for at least a semester. This would sufficiently account for the gravity of the crime, give the victim that time during which they can be separated from their attacker and send a clear message to the community that the University takes sexual assault seriously and that infractions will be met with severe penalties.
This suspension should be the minimum punishment — we fully encourage the University to use discretion for each case to determine whether a greater punishment is necessary. However, in no cases should there be a lesser sanction.
While we understand that each case is unique and that each instance should be handled individually, when it comes to sexual assault — a serious, violent crime — there should be some minimum standard in place. Certain cases may be worse than others, but ultimately sexual assault is sexual assault and no countervailing circumstances can change that.
Punishments are created to meet the severity of the crime. If someone is found responsible, he or she has committed a serious offense, and with that should come a serious punishment. By giving out sanctions that are less than forceful, OSC is essentially trivializing sexual assault.
Moreover, a policy that does not guarantee that those who are found responsible will be punished appropriately only exacerbates the underreporting of sexual assault. It is incredibly traumatizing for a victim to go through the whole OSC process in the first place. If the effort — even if it leads to proving the alleged assaulter is responsible — may not lead to a substantial result, will anyone even bother in the first place?
When students first get to Penn, they inevitably encounter the phrase “call it what it is,” part of Penn’s sexual assault education program. But this seems to be a catchphrase, because Penn doesn’t always treat it like what it is.