Giving it the old college trial

Ronald B. Lieber

December 12, 1991|By Ronald B. Lieber

ONE IN four college women is sexually assaulted or has such an attack attempted on her by the time she finishes school.

This statistic comes from the last nationwide study of college rape, published in 1987 by Dr. Mary Koss, now a professor at the University of Arizona.

At most, says Koss, only one in 10 of these victims will report the crime.

This disheartening reluctance to report rape is largely the result of university disciplinary systems that do not know how to handle rape cases.

Often the dean in charge of discipline convinces women who have been assaulted to use the college's judicial system instead of a local court.

The advantages for the college are clear: no bad publicity, no drop in applications and no decline in alumni donations.

The women, however, get nothing but a second-rate trial.

Amherst, Brown, Carleton, Dartmouth and Yale seem typical in that they handle rape cases like any disciplinary infraction, with a trial by a faculty-student committee.

Nationwide, few such committees are versed in legal definitions of rape, they don't keep up with changes in the interpretation of sexual assault laws and they aren't trained in examining medical records and studying physical evidence.

Few colleges have specific guidelines for handling sexual assault.

Many disciplinary committees hand down extraordinarily weak sentences.

For example, last year Tufts' committee (of three administrators or faculty members and two students) found four students guilty of rape.

The sentences: One was suspended for a year, two were allowed to withdraw for a year pending further action and the fourth was allowed to graduate on condition that he would never return to the campus.

But what are colleges doing ruling on felonies?

If one student fatally stabbed another, the college wouldn't try to punish him or her on its own.

College administrators disagree with criticism of such disciplinary methods, often claiming that not enough women have filed charges to know if the system truly works.

But why should women bother with a system that doesn't work for them?

Colleges around the country are making good-faith efforts to address sexual assault. Rape-prevention workshops are now part of many orientation programs for first-year students. Amherst even has student-run support groups for rape survivors and men's groups working to combat sexual harassment.

But until colleges and universities realize they have no business playing judge and jury, women who go through their kangaroo courts will continue to be denied justice.

Ronald B. Lieber is a junior at Amherst College majoring in American studies.

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