When colleges are asked to draw the line between rape and consensual sex, they sometimes get caught in the crossfire.
Take Brown University, for example. Last week, The New York Times reported that a former Brown student, William McCormick III, is suing the university because of the way its administrators responded after another student accused him of rape.
According to the lawsuit, Brown officials met privately with McCormick, ordered him to pack his belongings and provided him with a one-way plane ticket home. McCormick further alleged that administrators refused to provide him a copy of the complaint against him or to allow him to tell his side of the story. Brown officials dispute the account and argue that their actions were appropriate.
While it’s unclear what exactly happened, the case raises some troubling questions about how college administrators deal with sexual-assault cases. In some instances, nontransparent college disciplinary procedures can fail to provide enough protections for students accused of rape. In other cases, these secretive procedures can leave victims of rape feeling helpless.
It’s important to realize that the Brown case is the exception rather than the rule. By offering a victim the option of going through internal disciplinary proceedings instead of pressing formal criminal charges, colleges can help mediate many sexual-assault cases which would otherwise degenerate into “he said, she said” legal battles. But as Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said, these internal procedures have “very different standards,” both for evidence and for transparency. “There’s a whole set of different confidentiality rules in the Office of Student Conduct system,” she said. “There’s little confidentiality in the criminal justice system.”
Courts have given colleges leeway in designing their own disciplinary procedures, even when students face serious charges like sexual assault. In 2000, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that while colleges had to use basic or fundamental fairness in disciplinary proceedings, they did not have to offer due-process protections to accused students.
Since campus proceedings can’t result in deprivation of liberty, this may not seem troublesome. But what concerns me is that secrecy leads to less accountability, and that can lead to abuses of the rules.
Those abuses are far from uncommon — at least according to a recent report issued by the Center for Public Integrity. The Center — a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group — conducted an investigation into how colleges deal with sexual-assault cases.
“Some of the accused students felt they were being wrongly accused and pressured to accept responsibility for something they didn’t do,” said Kristen Lombardi, an investigative reporter for the Center. Others “believed that administrators could run roughshod on the rules because nobody knows what’s going on.”
Even worse, though, was how some schools treated alleged victims of sexual assault throughout the process. Oftentimes, school administrators would misinterpret federal privacy laws and coerce students to remain quiet about the results or details of disciplinary hearings. “Some schools had implemented policies that effectively acted as gag orders, preventing alleged victims from speaking about their experiences to others,” Lombardi said.
In other cases, rape victims were only allowed to participate in disciplinary hearings as witnesses or had little opportunity to defend themselves if their credibility was attacked, she added.
I recognize college administrators have a difficult balancing act when it comes to running rape-related disciplinary proceedings. At the very least though, schools should better inform their students how exactly these disciplinary proceedings work and consider opening up their procedures to more student input.
Sexual assault will always be a sensitive issue. But when it comes improving the efficacy of any justice system, a good dose of transparency goes a long way.
Ashwin Shandilya a Wharton senior from New Market, Md. He is the former Marketing Manager and Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Penn vs Sword appears on Thursdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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