Frostburg now provides advocates for both sides in an assault case.
"One of our concerns was that we had done so much to support the victim, and there was a question of balance," said Thomas L. Bowling, associate vice president for student and educational services.
In an even more confused case at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, three women complained to university officials that the campus had failed to protect them from a student who they said had sexually assaulted two of them -- and who then followed them around campus with a knife sheath and handcuffs hanging from his belt.
One of the women complained to a community newspaper after she saw the man still on campus, but the administration wouldn't tell her the result of a hearing in the case.
The man, an honors student who was expelled two weeks before graduation last May, had been permitted to stay on campus while he appealed the expulsion order, university officials acknowledged.
But the officials said the case was complicated by the fact that the women hadn't reported the charges of rape and sexual harassment until more than a year after they allegedly occurred.
"We acted as quickly as we could," university spokeswoman Louise White said.
She said the accused student was removed immediately from the residence hall and banned from all other areas of resident life, including dining halls, and one victim was offered a police escort.
But after so much time, the state declined to prosecute.
Since then, UMBC officials say they have revised the student code of conduct to specifically prohibit sexual assaults. The university says it now routinely provides victims with student advocates and tells them the outcome of internal disciplinary charges.
A model system at Towson
In contrast, Towson State University immediately suspends a student who seems violent, and convenes a disciplinary hearing within 48 hours. An appeal takes up to four days. Immediate suspension is common in cases of acquaintance rape when the victim feels at all threatened, officials said.
The system was set up 15 years ago because the slow criminal court process meant "it was quite possible to have a rapist on campus for six months," said Dorothy Siegel, vice president for student services and founder of the university's nationally known Campus Violence Prevention Center. "The purpose of the internal system is to protect the campus immediately."
Towson was one of the first universities to make special rules for dealing with student rape, a responsibility that some educators think schools should bear.
"I don't think universities should ever be a substitute [for criminal courts], but I do think that because of this different standard of proof . . . universities can fill gaps in the law of date rape, law that hasn't developed enough in the criminal system," said Sarah E. Wald, dean of students at Harvard Law School and a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts.
Although some state prosecutors are willing to take such cases, she says, juries still are not willing to convict. "They say, 'She should never have gone to his room in the first place.' We saw that some in the [William Kennedy] Smith case," Ms. Wald said.
Some figures suggest that colleges actually handle and punish a higher percentage of rapes reported on their campuses than the criminal court system.
In a survey of more than 400 colleges and universities conducted in 1990, the Campus Violence Prevention Center at Towson found that fewer than one in five rapes were prosecuted in criminal courts. But more than one-third -- 36 percent -- resulted in campus penalties. Most of the 215 rapes reported on those campuses -- 61.5 percent -- were classified as date or acquaintance rapes.
A few colleges don't hear such cases, feeling that sexual assaults have become "both so legally complicated and so fraught with intense emotion and politics that they can only be handled adequately in a courtroom setting," said Gary Pavela, a nationally known expert in laws affecting universities and director of campus judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park.
But the majority of universities, he said, believe they have a responsibility to respond to female students who make such claims, particularly "given their concerns about the criminal justice system," he said.
A sense of obligation
"There's a new sense of obligation on the part of universities to handle sexual assault cases properly," said Carol Bohmer, a Cornell University lawyer and professor who is writing a book on such lawsuits.
Given jury acquittals in cases such as the one against William Kennedy Smith in Florida, Ms. Bohmer and other experts say more women may turn to confidential university hearings to resolve their claims if they are encouraged to do so.
And they point to a case at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y., last fall as an example of how college systems can respond to victims.