Stories of female college students who were raped and then relied on their schools to adjudicate their claims have permeated the media during the past few months. And each woman’s story carries the same general theme: She was denied justice and left feeling like her school betrayed her. In these cases, the system failed because university and college campuses are not set up to effectively handle sexual assaults and other serious crimes.

Instead, the university disciplinary system is designed to address infractions like disrupting class or academic honor code violations such as plagiarism, which does not require much investigation other than comparing the student’s work with the source—and some schools even have software to do that for them. It does not work, however, when schools attempt to go beyond the scope of these violations.

There are numerous problems with victims only going through their school for sexual assault claims. The greatest downside is that the worst penalty the offender faces is expulsion from the university, releasing him from adequate legal punishment and to prey on others. Another drawback is the disciplinary process itself. The hearing panels schools use often lack consistent policies and procedures for dealing with cases like these and comprise administrative staff or faculty members who have little or no training in evaluating evidence, interviewing witnesses or the parties involved or understanding victims’ responses to trauma. The panelists might be unfamiliar with the elements of sexual assault and base their decisions on a lack of knowledge or without considering all of the evidence. At the hearing, the victim might have to speak for herself, being unable to afford an attorney or the school not allowing an advocate to speak on her behalf. If the attacker is found not responsible, the victim’s only option is to appeal, which goes to the dean or another school official who decides the fate of the case. The ordeal is made worse for the victim, as while the case proceeds, she must maintain confidentiality and cannot turn to friends or family. This makes what seemed like the right thing to do a nightmare for the survivor, often causing her shame and regret for trusting her school.

Rather, the best course of action is to immediately go to the police. They are properly trained and staffed to conduct interviews, collect evidence and thoroughly investigate the crime. Reporting the attack right away is crucial, because waiting can lower a victim’s credibility and even ruin a case—critical physical evidence might be destroyed, witnesses’ memories fade and attackers have time to fabricate their side of the story, all of which significantly lessen the likelihood of a case being pursued.

Still, reporting a rape to the police can be overwhelming to a victim, particularly right after it happens. Dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault is anything but easy, and uncomfortable medical exams need to be performed and difficult questions need to be asked of the victim. Some police officers might seem insensitive or like they are blaming the victim, but they are still trained to do the job, unlike school officials—plus, using the system is the only way it can improve. A victim might worry about being scrutinized for her behavior, feeling like she somehow contributed to her attack, and the prospect of a long, complicated criminal trial might be the least appealing option if she just wants to move on. Additionally, the standard of proof in criminal cases—beyond a reasonable doubt—is higher than a fairly straightforward university panel hearing, so the possibility of a case failing at trial might not seem worth pursuing.

The survivor may pursue a civil case if there is a responsible party financially capable of compensating her for her suffering. In this instance, the defendant might be a company or public entity, such as the attacker’s employer or an organization that facilitated the abuse, like the school. The standard of proof in a civil case, a preponderance of the evidence, is lower than in criminal cases, so the chance of prevailing is higher. The parties might also reach a settlement agreement, making a trial unnecessary. Furthermore, all of the evidence was already gathered in the police investigation, aiding in establishing the civil claim. Pursuing a civil case certainly lengthens the legal process for the victim, but it is another avenue to try obtaining closure and justice against the perpetrator.

If you or someone you know has been sexually abused, call a lawyer who represents crime victims and / or sexual abuse victims and learn more about the options available. Do not make important decisions based on what you have heard in the media or from friends. Josh spends hours with victims every week consulting with them (for free) about their options and educating them on the criminal and civil justice systems so they can make informed decisions. Whether the case involves a University, another institution or just an individual perpetrator, take the time to get the information necessary to make the right decision for you.

Posted by: Jessica Pedrosa