Previously, we have written about victims’ reluctance to report campus sexual assaults to the police. Finding the solution to that problem is front and center in the debate about how schools and the criminal justice system should be handling cases of sexual violence. This debate set the stage for a hearing held last week by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on improving law enforcement’s response to campus sexual assault and the relationship between police departments and campuses.
Opening remarks at the hearings unanimously called for a different approach that will better address sexual assault victims’ fear of being revictimized when reporting these crimes.
Sen. Claire McCaskill discussed the importance of strengthening victim support systems, stating that “A victim who is assaulted on a Friday night needs to know, on that Friday night, where she can call and where she can go for confidential support and good information, which we hope gives her the encouragement to make the choice to move forward in the criminal justice system.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand testified, “[O]ur ultimate goal should be that 100 percent of survivors of campus sexual assault feel comfortable and confident reporting to law enforcement . . . But, time and again, I have heard from far too many survivors of campus sexual assault that they have felt re-victimized by the process of trying to seek justice for the crime committed against them.”
Last July, together with a bipartisan group of Senators, Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, intended to protect and empower students and increase accountability for schools around sexual violence.
Improving Campus Response Goes Hand-in-Hand With Improving Police Response
Angela Fleischer, the Assistant Director of Student Support and Intervention for Confidential Advising at Southern Oregon University, helped create the Ashland Police Department’s You Have Options Program and Southern Oregon’s Campus Choice. Fleischer said at the hearings that “The need for programs like these is urgent and undeniable . . ..”
According to Fleischer, improving the campus response goes hand-in-hand with improving the law enforcement response. To improve reporting of sexual assault, she urges both campus administration and law enforcement to start by training anyone who interviews victims on trauma informed interviewing techniques. By creating a coordinated victim-centered approach, the You Have Options and Campus Choice programs have more than doubled reporting of sexual assault in their jurisdictions.
This approach also focuses on collecting information about offenders in the community by allowing victims to come forward and report in the manner in which they are most comfortable, whether it is anonymously, in person, or online. Besides having control over reporting, victims also decide the timeframe and scope of the investigation with the option to suspend the investigation at any time.
Speaking from the perspective of law enforcement, Kathy Zoner, Chief of the Cornell University Police, offered best practices that can be adopted on all campuses:
- Adopt victim-centered and offender-focused response procedures;
- Prioritize medical and advocacy resources for every victim who reports a sexual assault;
- Provide non-victim-blaming education to community members within the agency’s jurisdiction;
- Train and hold accountable every member of the participating agency – sworn and non-sworn – for the same victim-centered and offender-focused response; and
- Promote an environment within the agency where victims of sexual assault are not judged or blamed for their assault and instead are treated with dignity, sensitivity, and courtesy.
Creating a New System
Peg Langhammer, Executive Director of Day One, Rhode Island’s sexual assault coalition, told the committee that what’s needed is to create a new universal system such as the You Have Options program. According to Langhammer, “We can’t expect victims to report when the system in place doesn’t work . . . So the question is not, should colleges be mandated to report these crimes to police? The question is how do we create a system where the victim’s choices are the priority and the process is designed to work in the best interest of the victim?”
Langhammer recommends a new system made up of a team of representatives from law enforcement, prosecution, victim advocates, medical professionals, and higher education that is responsible for handling sexual assault cases from the initial report to investigation and resolution.
According to Langhammer, “The college hearing process should be integrated with law enforcement. Police need to be involved, but it has to be a team approach.”
Cooperation and Education
Senators Grassley, McCaskill, Gillibrand, and Whitehouse all pledged to work with the new Congress to pass the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which would require schools to enter into a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement to define their respective responsibilities and to share information in sexual violence cases, “when directed by the victim.”
Meanwhile, Philip Cohen, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, argues that an institution’s “most important obligation and best hope for solving the problem: educating students to change the culture around sexual violence.”