Stronger steps on sexual assault

Jul. 13, 2013 @ 04:04 PM

With the question of how colleges and universities address sexual assault roiling campuses this year, Duke University has quietly moved to strengthen its sanctions against students guilty of such misconduct.

The Office of Student Conduct, beginning this fall, will view expulsion as the routine sanction for a student it judges guilty of sexual assault. Now, suspension is the default sanction, with expulsion the more-seldom invoked punishment.

The move is important, as much as anything for its underscoring that Duke takes sexual assault seriously. Its neighbors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have struggled with the issue this past year. There, a group of students and a former administrator filed a formal complaint with the university over its handling of sexual misconduct charges, energizing debate on and off campus over how the university deals with the issue.

Few if any college campuses are free from the challenge of dealing with sexual assault and misconduct.  Ours are no exception. Indeed, one legitimate debate fueled by the infamously false rape allegations against Duke lacrosse players in 2006 concerned the overall culture of gender relations on Duke and other campuses.

Nationally, 19 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced attempted or completed sexual assault in college, according to a study cited on the website of the American Association of University Women.

The AAUW website also notes that “95 percent of attacks are unreported,” making sexual assault the ‘silent epidemic.’”

“While there are many reasons why people do not report, the most often cited reason in a 200i investigation by the Center for Public Integrity was institutional barriers on campus,” the website continues.

It is that belief that reporting a rape is embarrassing, difficult and futile that Duke hopes to confront with the new Office of Student Conduct approach to sanctions. Nikolai Doytchinov, Duke’s new student government executive vice president, said last week that the new policy symbolically shows “how seriously our community takes this.”

We question whether a campus judicial system, with fewer protections for accuser and accused alike, is truly the best place to judge guilt and innocence of serious crimes. But many victims are ultimately more likely to approach the campus system than the community one, and affirmation of the seriousness of the crime on campus is an important step.

As Larry Moneta, Duke’s veteran vice president for student affairs, said last week, “this is not like the measles; there’s no vaccine. This is a very complicated issue that … requires persistence and a multi-varied approach.”

Most college students would never think, in any circumstance, of committing sexual assault. But until “no means no” is universally and consistently honored, colleges with their closely packed populations will face this challenge.

Duke’s changed policy sends an important message.