Jared Polis: Colleges should handle sex assault cases
During a subcommittee hearing last week about sexual assault on college campuses, I committed a major gaffe during the back-and-forth exchange with a witness who was advocating for removing the authority of colleges to adjudicate sexual assault cases that happen on their campuses. My words did not convey my beliefs nor the policies I now or have ever supported
During that exchange I went too far by implying that I support expelling innocent students from college campuses, which is something neither I nor other advocates of justice for survivors of sexual assault support. That is not what I meant to say and I apologize for my poor choice of words.
Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious issue — one that shouldn't be whittled down to errant sound bites. For the incoming class of 2019 that arrived at college campuses earlier this month, nearly one in five female students will be assaulted or raped by the time she graduates .
Nor should this be seen strictly as a gender issue. Men also experience sexual assault and they face the same types of trauma as female survivors.
To most people who don't know much about this issue, it makes sense to solely adjudicate these cases in our criminal justice system, just like we do other crimes. The witness mentioned above who I was questioning was arguing for just such an approach.
However, this is a deeply dangerous idea that demonstrates a cursory and superficial understanding of the issue. Ask any sexual assault advocate and they'll tell you the same thing.
There are very important reasons why colleges and universities currently have jurisdiction over assaults that occur on their campuses, and why the process is separate from the criminal justice system. In my effort to defend this practice, I went too far, and I regret that my remarks have detracted from the substance of this debate and have reflected poorly on the good work being done by college offices across the country that investigate these cases, including two in my own backyard in Colorado (University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University).
Decades of research and case histories show how woefully inadequate the criminal justice system can be for survivors of sexual assault. For starters, rape survivors are unlikely to report cases to police, citing things like not thinking it's important enough, not wanting others to know, not having proof, fearing retaliation, and being uncertain about whether what happened constitutes assault . According to a recent Department of Justice study, only 20 percent of campus sexual assault survivors report the assault to police .
Secondly, our criminal justice system moves slowly. Campus assault cases are designed to move efficiently so that survivors, as a basic matter of campus safety and to prevent additional trauma, don't have to cross paths with their assailant on campus for an extended period of time.
Third, colleges have a unique obligation to adjudicate these cases because of a landmark federal civil rights law, Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in any federally-funded educational institution. Sexual violence on college campuses creates a hostile learning environment, particularly for women, and is therefore a violation of civil rights. It's essential that colleges uphold the right of every student to a safe learning environment and colleges are uniquely equipped to provide that through accommodations that local police simply can't offer. For instance, helping a student switch classes or move dorms so she or he doesn't have to interact with their assailant on a daily basis are critical to survivors' ability to complete their education.
This is precisely why the Department of Education four years ago stepped in and required schools to use a "preponderance of evidence" standard to remove alleged assailants from campus, meaning the evidence shows it is more likely than not that the student is guilty of the assault.
This requirement doesn't discourage survivors from also pursuing criminal complains if they wish, but it allows schools to take more timely action against individuals who the evidence shows are guilty, so that assailants are not allowed to remain on campus and reoffend while their cases slowly make their way through criminal courts (if they ever do — only half of all sexual assault cases that are investigated by police are prosecuted ).
Our criminal courts weren't designed to decide who can safely be in the same classroom with your kids or mine; they were designed to set a high bar for depriving someone of their liberty and imprisoning them. In my comments last week I was attempting to make this point, though I went too far in making it. I regret that my gaffe is now being used by some to advocate for a dangerous and myopic policy that would make our college campuses less safe.
For those of us also concerned with the rights of the accused, dragging their name through the newspaper as an accused rapist through a criminal justice process will haunt them
forever, even if they are found not guilty. So too, it damages the survivor of sexual assault even more to have their name and crimes against them in public, especially because a popular defense strategy is to attack the victim.
Yes, balancing the needs for campus safety and due process is not easy. But the answer is not simply to tell schools to wash their hands of all responsibility on the issue and refer every student to a court system in which justice is elusive (for every 100 rape cases reported, only three rapists will ever serve a day in prison ).
Instead, we should be working together toward the same goal: college campuses where survivors feel empowered to come forward and where administrators have the resources they need to handle these cases promptly, fairly and equitably.
Jared Polis represents Colorado's second congressional district in the House of Representatives.