Right at the tail-end of April, the White House launched NotAlone.gov. The site is pursuant to Obama’s promise to initiate a national effort to stem the wave of sexual-assaults on American college and university campuses. It offers resources and guidelines to victims of sexual assault as part of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

But the related item that seemed to have grabbed the most attention and comment within the last week is the unveiling of a federal list of 55 colleges and universities. These institutions are currently being subject to a Title IX-related investigation tied to the possible mishandling of sexual assault cases. In tandem with NotAlone.gov, the investigation is part of the Obama administration’s push for more stringent, prevention and response measures.

The “preponderance of evidence” mandate, issued by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011, requires campus judiciaries to adjudicate sexual assault cases in favor of those leveling the charges—even if the volume of evidence only slightly exceeds that of the accused. The mandate has been part and parcel of a reinterpretation of Title IX that subsumes sexual assault under gender discrimination.

Naturally, the move has garnered praise from some in the activist corner. For others, specifically civil libertarians, the “guilty-until-proven-innocent” ethos of the federal campaign prompts worries about the rights of the accused or alleged perpetrators—especially since it augments the powers of campus judicial systems in lieu of a due-process route.

I count myself in the we-should-adequately-tackle-sexual-assault-without-tossing-out-due-process camp (it is far from easy to balance the two, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying).

Sexual assault is an emotionally-charged, mine-field of a topic. Much of the national debate has been centered on the drastic underreporting of incidences, egregious mishandling of cases by colleges and universities, and the silence that victims of sexual assault feel resigned to. Rightfully so. But the rights of the accused should be given as much weight as those leveling the charges.

I am not exactly qualified to offer effective, alternative prescriptions that reconcile the rights of the alleged perpetrators with the rights of those who mustered enough courage to come forward and report.  But I will pipe in and say that keeping due-process intact (i.e. taking it to the courts, as McArdle suggests) by encouraging (but not pressuring) victims to seek legal recourse and allowing the alleged perpetrators to adequately present their side of the story, is sensible. Fostering a consent-based, hook-up culture that does not infantilize women or vilify men (via educational and awareness-raising campaigns) would also be desirable.

Those two prescriptions, whatever their worth, seem redundant. But given the discourse on sexual assault on campuses and Washington’s recent efforts, I think they are worth restating.

“But what about the colleges?” you may ask. In relation to the first prescription, colleges and universities should not have their own judiciaries (except for handling the sin of all academic sins—plagiarism).

If we are going to treat sexual assault as the serious crime that it is—akin to, but not interchangeable with, murder and theft—then the local police and courts should be the recourse. Do we expect colleges to handle homicide cases without turning them over to the local police? I think not.

There are problems with this, of course. Law-enforcement officials are also prone to underreport or inadequately handle sexual assault cases. And victims have legitimate hang-ups about filing reports. But college judicial systems are unlikely to uphold the due-process philosophy. Now they are being required to go with the likely story, with the accused on the losing side. And let’s face it, they have been inept at handling these cases, anyway.

As for the second, college and university campuses have already been in the business of sexual assault awareness and training programs. Some, such as Boston University in 2012, open on-site crisis centers. And you will likely find Teach Men Not to Rape posters plastered along the lecture hallway.

Colleges and student organizations have been trying to do their part in promoting consent in the hook-up scene. But they could use more of the Stand-Up-For-Yourself and Look-Out-for-Each-Other approach, as Aunt Merryweather suggests.

I get the emotional salve of solutions that are touted as effective and expedient. Especially when it comes to a societal crisis like sexual assault. I agree that one is assault is too many. But we should not eschew due process or the rights of any of the affected parties to deal with the problem.

 

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