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College campuses and sexual assault: how should it be reported?

Did you know that colleges and universities across the United States are required by federal law to follow up on reports of sexual assault? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Neither did more than 40 percent of schools across the nation, says a congressional subcommittee.

What seems more problematic is the fact that, according to a survey involving some 300 colleges, 73 percent of schools “do not have protocols for how campus authorities and local law enforcement should work together when cases arise.” But what could this mean for students and faculty alike?

By failing to meet the requirements of federal law, colleges and universities open themselves up to liability issues as well as possible litigation. But this failure also creates a plethora of issues for students accused of committing a sex crime, including the possibility of retroactive litigation in the case. This could create complex legal situations that may require court involvement in the future.

Although colleges across the nation, including here in California, agree that more could be done to meet federal expectations, it’s worth noting that campuses need to be careful with how they handle allegations of sexual assault. As you may already know, criminal accusations can be powerful things and if handled improperly, it could violate a person’s rights.

Also, colleges need to think carefully about how they define sexual assault. According to some participants of a discussion group that was sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum, too broadly defining sexual assault could have a negative effect on not only those who are accused -- it’s possible that a broad definition could label innocent people as offenders -- but victims as well -- a broad definition could undermine actual, serious crimes later on.

Source: USA Today, “Colleges ignoring sexual assault, senator charges,” Deirdre Shesgreen et al, July 9, 2014

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