How Not to Handle a College Sexual Assault
Occidental students at a march to change the campus sexual assault reporting policy.
Students at Southern California's Occidental College are filing a federal complaint against their school's response to a recent sexual assault. The demands of the student group, Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, are simple: Chief among 12 changes, they want all students to be informed when there is an assault reported on campus in the same way students are informed via all-campus email of other crimes, like alleged robbery. This issue came to a head in the past week, as students learned about a sexual assault on campus not from their campus crime alert system, but from local news reports.
The school's president responded in an open letter that sexual assaults should be handled differently than other crimes because the police should be given time to figure out what happened in any alleged assault and because the campus's small community could gossip about the survivor and alleged attacker. "Where there is a serious and continuing danger, such as an unidentified assailant, or unknown threat that requires a temporarily increased level of security, we will alert the community right away just as we do for other crimes," reads President Jonathan Veitch's letter.
"Let me be frank," responds Occidental sociology Professor Lisa Wade."Our college president freely admitted in writing that he treats people who report sexual assault differently than people who report other crimes. He takes reports of non-sexual crimes at face value, but is biased against possible victims of sexual assault. This is morally wrong and empirically unfounded."
Professor Wade wrote about the issues with Occidental's sexual assault policy on the blog she helps run, Sociological Images. As she notes, Occidental is not less safe than other colleges.
Colleges have a unique role in society, since they're students' homes while they're in school. They have a high standard to be a safe and supportive place and have the ability to provide centralized, wrap-around services to assault survivors in a way that is trickier in the outside world. But a recent study of University of Oregon students found that 46 percent of sexual assault survivors feels betrayed by some sort of institution—whether it's the courts, the police, or their school.
Colleges like Oxy need to be a place where students who come forward to report crimes feel supported—not betrayed and in danger.
Students who organized a march and petition in response to the president's letter also filed a complaint with the feds that the school's policy violates the Clery Act, which mandates schools inform students about certain crimes in a timely manner. Students argue that informing the campus only of "unknown assailant" assaults will help perpetuate the false idea that most assaults are committed by strangers.
Meanwhile, though the police have a suspect in the case, the person is not in custody. Protestors at the campus point out that having an alleged assailant wandering around campus is the kind of "serious and continuing danger" the president should be worried about.
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