Friday, November 16, 2018
Education

Why do universities handle sexual assault cases, anyway?

News stories about campus sexual assault often get the question, "Why do schools handle these cases, anyway?"

Readers often wonder how universities got tasked with handling these convoluted cases in the first place. Where, they ask, do the police come in?

"Itís actually a very legitimate question because itís been a big cultural change," said Peter Lake, a Stetson University College of Law professor with expertise in this area. "It wasnít that long ago that that would have been a natural response, to push these things toward the police."

Itís pretty simple, Lake said: Schools handle these cases because theyíre required to under penalty of law.

Okay, so why does the law require schools to deal with sex violence?

Short answer: Because itís discrimination.

One violent act can contain many dimensions, Lake said. It can be morally repugnant. It can be criminal. It can be a violation of workplace rules.

And it can also be discrimination.

"Thatís the thing that people have to wrap their heads around, that violence has often been used as a tool to perpetuate discrimination," Lake said.

Take violence against would-be black voters in the Reconstruction-era South. Or sexual harassment from a professor that effectively drives a student out of the classroom.

The law understands sexual harassment and assault as forms of sex discrimination. And because a federal law called Title IX prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded institutions, universities have to deal with it.

A student being harassed by her professor is likely going to have a harder time pursuing her education. So is a student who is reeling from a sexual assault by a classmate.

"Schools handle these issues because theyíre supposed to make sure everyone has equal access to education," said Sage Carson, manager of the advocacy group Know Your IX.

Okay, but with a crime as serious as rape, what can a school really do?

Itís more accurate to think of the criminal and school systems as complementary paths rather than competing ones. A victim can go to one, both or neither.

"Weíre dealing with the same act, but with a different perspective and goals," Lake said.

Law enforcement typically focuses on bringing a perpetrator to justice.

"But that doesnít do anything to address the discriminatory impact," Lake said. "So campuses are focused on intervening and remediating that."

A university typically takes a more comprehensive approach, with resources for both the victim and the accused. It can, for instance, make sure students no longer have to share a dorm.

"A police officer canít do that. Courts canít do that," Carson said. "Schools can."

A schoolís discipline process isnít intended to replicate a criminal justice system. But the quick remedies it provides can be critical.

Still, why wouldnít a victim of sexual violence go to the police?

The bar in the criminal courts is high, and finding guilt in these cases can be difficult given their complex nature.

The equation only gets more complicated with alcohol, blurred lines of consent and he-said, she-said testimonies.

Victims of sexual violence have reason to fear the criminal justice system, said Michelle Issadore, the senior associate executive director of ATIXA, the Association of Title IX Administrators.

She said the process has a long history of retraumatizing victims, who will likely face a barrage of questions from police, skeptical lawyers and juries along the way.

Furthermore, she said, some victims have no interest in seeing the accused face jail time. Instead, she said, they might just want their school to ensure they wonít cross paths again.

How does a universityís internal disciplinary process work?

First, letís flash back about half a dozen years. Survivors of sexual violence often said too many universities were sweeping assault under the rug. Too few perpetrators were being held accountable.

The Obama administration issued a sweeping set of guidelines, starting in 2011, for how universities should address sexual assault. Survivors said that for the first time, it seemed like justice was possible.

Schools scrambled to get into compliance, altering their discipline processes, shifting budgets and adding resources. The Obama administration opened hundreds of investigations at universities where they suspected a potential mishandling of sexual violence cases, signaling consequences for failing to take the issue seriously.

Most schools ended up with quasi-judicial hearings and justice processes on campus. These are not a court of law, and canít find anyone guilty. But they can find students "responsible" for misconduct so that schools can dole out sanctions and deal with the discrimination. These hearings can involve evidence, lawyers and cross-examination.

So where do we stand now?

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said sexual assault is an issue she wants to get right. She has said that universities used to get away with too much.

She has also shown a keen interest in complaints from accused students and their parents, who, in growing numbers, are saying that they were denied due process.

As DeVos mulls her next steps, her office has released interim guidance for universities, stripping away the Obama rules, but leaving internal discipline systems mostly intact.

For now, universities and their students wait in limbo for whatís next.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]

Comments
Lee is renamed Tampa Heights Elementary School

Lee is renamed Tampa Heights Elementary School

TAMPA — Even the vote to rename Lee Elementary School — a treasured institution that weathered a devastating fire and a year-long relocation — did not happen without twists and turns.Tuesday's decision to call the school Tampa He...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Years after the ribbon cutting, USF sorts out a funding mix-up with one of its buildings

Years after the ribbon cutting, USF sorts out a funding mix-up with one of its buildings

A state-ordered review of construction funding at Florida universities has uncovered a multimillion-dollar funding snag at the University of South Florida that officials there are not fully explaining.The mix-up involves the $21.7 million Dr. Kiran C...
Published: 11/15/18
Gradebook podcast: Recounting Florida Ė The Education Election Edition

Gradebook podcast: Recounting Florida Ė The Education Election Edition

A discussion on school board term limits, tax referendums and other issues from the November election.
Published: 11/15/18
Florida education news: Recount lessons, contract talks, student support and more

Florida education news: Recount lessons, contract talks, student support and more

A roundup of stories from around the state.
Published: 11/15/18
The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: What’s it like to be called up the NHL; this father had a foreboding sense about his son; check out all the Tampa Bay Times’ podcasts.
Published: 11/15/18

Pasco schools might have to send nearly $1M back to the state

District's 2015-16 student count was lower than projected.
Published: 11/15/18
Florida education news: K-12 funding, college access, school naming and more

Florida education news: K-12 funding, college access, school naming and more

A roundup of stories from around the state.
Published: 11/14/18
The Daystarter: A whole lot of suing going on in the Florida recount; why Rick Scott and Bill Nelson are smack in the middle; a Hall of Fame kind of night for Martin St. Louis

The Daystarter: A whole lot of suing going on in the Florida recount; why Rick Scott and Bill Nelson are smack in the middle; a Hall of Fame kind of night for Martin St. Louis

The Daystarter: Marc Topkin on Rays’ manager Kevin Cash falling short of the top AL manager award; Graham Brink on why Amazon just isn’t that into Tampa Bay; and Tom Jones on why the Bucs are keeping Jameis Winston on the bench.
Published: 11/14/18
Man who defrauded area charter schools sentenced to 20 years in prison

Man who defrauded area charter schools sentenced to 20 years in prison

The mastermind behind a scheme to defraud charter schools in seven Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison.Marcus May, 56, was also ordered to pay $5 million in fines to the state by Escambia...
Published: 11/13/18
Nearly 100 ideas to rename Tampaís Lee Elementary

Nearly 100 ideas to rename Tampaís Lee Elementary

From the obvious to the ironic and back again, Hillsborough residents racked their collective brains to find the best new name for Lee Elementary School.MaryEllen Elia was suggested, for the last superintendent.But that won't happen. A newly revised ...
Published: 11/13/18