© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Colleges Adjudicate Their Own Campus Crimes


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The numbers are staggering. According to a White House report earlier this year, one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college. New accounts of harassment and gang rape at universities have ignited protests, often against the schools themselves for mishandling cases.

Federal education officials are now widening their investigations as they look at how schools handle both the victims and the accused. But why are colleges and universities adjudicating crimes that carry felony charges? We turned to NPR's Tovia Smith, who's been reporting on campus sexual assault, and asked her that question.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, to quote a college administrator I spoke with a while back, the short answer is because they have to. Title IX requires schools to make sure their students are safe and feel safe, free of discrimination and harassment and certainly sexual assault. And the federal government has made it clear that they're watching, and they're going to withhold federal funding if schools mess up so schools are scrambling to get it right.

MARTIN: But aren't these same colleges and universities motivated to keep these charges quiet? It doesn't look very good to prospective students.

SMITH: Right. But the new requirements and all the new attention on this, you might say now it's become riskier for schools to try and claim they have no assaults on campus then to just report it and handle them as they're supposed to. And I would add that most schools want to do the right thing, though, that just doesn't mean that they know how to or that they have done.

MARTIN: They want to do the right thing. What are they doing? Have schools made improvements to their policies when it comes to handling sexual assault on their campuses?

SMITH: Yeah. For one thing, schools are a lot less likely these days to have their cases heard by a panel of, say the English professor and the assistant to the deputy head of the center for arts, as in the case I reported. Now they have staff who are trained and, you know, as you can imagine, this takes some expertise. And many college administrators have trouble even saying the words that come up in these kinds of cases.

It's so difficult, in fact, one trainer that I met actually made up a song with all the explicit words that I can't say here. But, you know, it goes these are a few of our much-needed terms. And she makes administrators actually sing it to get them over their discomfort.

But other campuses have decided they're not even going to try and become expert at this. It's not their thing, they say. And instead, they just outsourced the job to professionals. So they hire, for example, former prosecutors to investigate. And they keep the punishment part for themselves. It's usually a dean who decides if a student should be expelled or just moved out of his dorm, for example. And let me just add, that's another reason many campuses say they have to be adjudicating these cases because they're the only ones who can make those kinds of accommodations for an alleged victim to make those students feel safe.

MARTIN: Students can still go to the police, right?

SMITH: They can. Always can. But in a lot of cases, it's the victims who don't want that. They see the criminal justice system as more grueling and potentially re-traumatizing. And not only is it harder to go through, but it's also harder to win in court where, you know, a case has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. On campus, the standard of proof is much lower. The government says it should be a preponderance of the evidence, which means, basically, just that something was more likely to have happened than not.

MARTIN: So a lower standard on campus. What does that mean for the people who are accused of committing sexual assaults?

SMITH: Well, there are a slew of lawsuits now filed by students who were accused of assault who say they never got a fair shake, they were denied due process, they didn't, have the rights and protections on campus that they would have in court; like the right to an attorney or to cross-examine their accuser. But on the other hand, the argument is the stakes are lower on campus. You know, students aren't facing prison, just expulsion. So protections can be lower as well.

And also, again, schools are pretty adamant they are not the courts. And they don't want to be. Their take is basically, you know, don't use us to replace the criminal justice system that doesn't work. You should go fix the criminal justice system because victims need both options. By way of example, I spoke to one survivor who declined to prosecute, took her case to campus, she won on campus. The guy was expelled. But then he enrolled in another school. And that's when the victim decided she did want to prosecute because, as she put it, the only way to stop him from doing this again was to go to a court that had the power to put the guy in prison.

MARTIN: NPR's Tovia Smith. Thanks so much, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you.

MARTIN: You can read about the history of campus sexual assault by going to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.