non-punishment for sexual assault at virginia?

There is a serious crisis at the University of Virginia after Rolling Stone published an article that, unsurprisingly, argued that the administration failed to punish sexual offenders on campus. Soon, the University president, Teresa Sullivan, announced a suspension of fraternity activities until Jan. 9 but otherwise defended the school.

This is very disappointing. It has become increasingly common knowledge that universities are unable to handle rape allegations, they have almost no control over fraternities, and national fraternity organizations have set themselves up so that they are not liable for student violence. President Sullivan’s punishment is especially disappointing because the suspension only applies, essentially, when VA is out of session. Literally, the suspension applies now (Thanksgiving break), final exams, and the winter break. UVA is out of session until Jan. 12. Some “punishment.”

Here is the difficult discussion that universities have to have if this horrid situation is ever to end:

  • Rape is a felony. It’s something you go to prison for. Thus, colleges are not in a position to investigate or handle these claims. Student/faculty juries for felonies are a joke. All rape allegations should be immediately transferred to the police.
  • Develop new procedures for victims. Instead of going to the dean (who should be supportive in any case), all victims should go to the health clinic or local hospital *immediately* for medical attention and collection of physical evidence. This is especially important as research shows that violence is committed mainly by a small group of serial offenders who exploit the party scene. Even charges are never filed, physical evidence and documentation is needed to expel people suspected of violence.
  • Universities should divest themselves from fraternities because they are extremely dangerous and unaccountable. How bad? Essentially, insurance companies in America won’t ever cover claims related to fraternities any more. It’s that bad.

Sadly, we will always be faced with the challenge of sexual violence. However, universities have allowed a hot house environment for violence to grow on their campuses. Allowing large groups of unsupervised young men to throw alcohol drenched parties with no liability is a recipe for disaster. This has to end.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

10 Responses

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  1. I agree that university “courts” shouldn’t handle felonies or sexual assault. But mandating going to the medical world is problematic. A rape victim has had their agency taken away. In the first hours and days it is paramount to help the restore a sense of power and control. Advice and counseling is better than mandates. Mental health professionals and rape crisis counselors are better positioned to handle this than deans, deanlets, and Title IX coordinators.



    November 26, 2014 at 1:43 am

  2. Fabio,

    I general, I buy the anti-frat line of reasoning. But I have two concerns with your diagnosis and plan.

    1. “This is especially important as research shows that violence is committed mainly by a small group of serial offenders who exploit the party scene.” I’d be curious as to some cites for this claim. I’m willing to be convinced, but some of the behaviors described seem organizational (and thus not presumably not linked solely to a small group of serial offenders). For example, at UVA, the offenses were not committed by a single individual “exploiting” the party scene, but rather by a large group of frat brothers assaulting a woman collectively. More generally, certain forms of assault seem to be sufficiently normalized (or at least were until recently) that many did not even consider them bad behavior, and thus again, I’m not sure why we’d be convinced that it was a small group that was responsible (though I suppose it depends on our definitions of small).

    2. I agree that universities are poorly equipped to handle felony accusations. That said, the police have historically done a pretty poor job of handling rape accusations as well, and due to the nature of the offenses, convictions are often hard to obtain even when the police do their jobs right and take victims’ claims seriously. And to some extent, that’s how the system is designed – criminal sanctions are only to be enforced when a crime is beyond reasonable doubt. But universities are not bound by as strong an evidentiary standard (much as civil trials are not). So might it not make sense for both the police and the university to take such charges seriously? Universities could expel (or at least suspend) students where the case is strong but not strong enough for a criminal conviction, and thus at least victims would not have to deal with seeing their attackers on campus or in class. The criminal justice process is also slow (again for good reasons), and thus the victim cannot get immediate relief if she has shares a dorm or a class with her perpetrator. The university can (at least in theory) act quickly on those dimensions to facilitate a victim staying in school.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    November 26, 2014 at 3:11 am

  3. Dan’s is onto something, the Greek system breeds a culture that condones sexual aggression for male frat boys and has some older sorority women sending naïve female pledges into dangerous settings. Check out the book Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong or the article “Buddies and Slutties” by Mindy Strombler.


    No greeks

    November 26, 2014 at 6:14 pm

  4. @Dan: from the rolling stone article:

    “[David] Lisak’s 2002 groundbreaking study of more than 1,800 college men found that roughly nine out of 10 rapes are committed by serial offenders, who are responsible for an astonishing average of six rapes each. None of the offenders in Lisak’s study had ever been reported. Lisak’s findings upended general presumptions about campus sexual assault: It implied that most incidents are not bumbling, he-said-she-said miscommunications, but rather deliberate crimes by serial sex offenders.”

    It’s just one study, and somewhat dated at this point, but it does suggest that most campus rapes are committed by repeat offenders. I haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary.



    November 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm

  5. Dan is right about the burden of proof. Some anti-rape folks are very happy to have rape prosecuted at a less than beyond-reasonable-doubt standard given the failure of the criminal justice system to successfully address rape. But I think that’s a Pyrrhic victory.


    Philip N. Cohen

    November 27, 2014 at 1:54 am

  6. Reasonable doubt isn’t the same standard as absolute certainty. People get prosecuted for all kinds of things on a reasonable doubt basis. In fact, people plead guilty to things they did not actually do fairly often because that is the only way to get out of jail. Being held in custody awaiting adjudication is a big source of false guilty pleas. The reviews I’ve read suggest that the rate of false accusation of rape is in the 8% ballpark, pretty much the same as for other crimes. Rape is not the only crime, you know, with false reports. It is not, for example, unknown for assailants to charge their victims with assault. So on balance, if you know how the criminal justice system operates, a good guess is that a White college student accused of rape in the CJ system is probably (a) not going to be held in custody while awaiting adjudication and (b) probably get more of a benefit of the doubt than most people accused of crimes. So my own prior is that white college students are quite unlikely to be falsely convicted for rape in the CJ system.

    The big problem is what to do with the alleged perpetrator and the complaining victim while the CJ system grinds its extremely slow way to adjudication. If the university does nothing and we are in the 92% of the cases where the allegation is true, the victim has to tolerate having the perpetrator free to roam the campus. Mutual no contact orders may help. My campus says that the Violence Against Women act makes them feel that they need to conduct campus judicial proceedings and get the perpetrator off campus to protect the safety of the victim, while the CJ system grinds its way slowly and laboriously to some kind of criminal resolution.

    Realizing upon re-reading that I’m pretty much echoing a lot of what Dan Hirshman said. Except I’m emphasizing the time to adjudication rather than the evidentiary standard.

    A second complaint against the same person ought, logically, to lead to immediate expulsion unless you can find evidence of collusion in the complaining witnesses.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 27, 2014 at 3:51 am

  7. @Maggie – Is this the study?

    If so, then Lisak and Miller find 120 men out of 1882 (6.4%) “met criteria for rape or attempted rape” (p. 78). 11 admitted to more than 8 such acts. I’d be interested to hear from more expert readers on the subject how this study has been received, and in particular how reliable its measures are (especially given the small cell size for those reporting more than 2 rapes, and just given the structure of the questionnaire which asked respondents to report how often such events had ever happened and thus is likely to have some problematic recall/reporting issues).

    But even just that top-line number of 6% of men admitting on an anonymous survey to acts that would constitute rape suggests to me that framing this as a problem of “a small group of serial offenders” is perhaps misleading. Six percent is nowhere near a majority, but it would suggest that at a campus with 7500 undergraduate men (approximately UVA’s size), 450 would have committed an undetected rape (again following Lisak and Miller’s logic and estimates).

    Fabio, is there other research you were thinking of about the proportion of rapes (especially the sort that often goes unreported and is associated with the party scene) that is committed by serial offenders?


    Dan Hirschman

    November 27, 2014 at 5:06 am

  8. I agree with OW that universities can’t just wait for convictions. But they can’t adjudicate cases either – I’m old enough to remember the idea that universities should only enforce academic rules, because the additional jurisdiction they get is so often abused. So maybe just a simple rule like any indictment for a violent crime and you’re suspended till the verdict. (And then of course they can provide support to survivors, encourage them to go to the police, and concentrate on their educational mission.


    Philip N. Cohen

    November 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

  9. Now that insurers have gotten serious about bars that serve minors, the frat houses have a lock on serving alcohol and thus on parties, seen by many undergraduates as central to the college experience. My own turned a blind eye to a small on-campus pub, but that’s in no way comparable. If you can’t shut down the frats, you can at least ban events that host non-members. Perhaps the answer lies in colleges finding some other setting.



    November 28, 2014 at 10:40 pm

  10. Always amusing to find yourself meeting yourself…again
    In the 60’s the cry was to remove the university from “loco parentis.” We were, after all, adults! No need for the university to bother their collective graying heads about what went on behind the walls we rented from them!
    Chickens having come home to roost, the universities are now being criticized for having done for our children as we asked for ourselves. Now anything that happens on campus must be brought about or prevented by the all-powerful and Omniscient School.
    Unfortunately, in an environment that needs to show “how seriously we take” each new enthusiasm (currently purported or even actual rape, although the definition has undergone an odd morphing including now posting nudes on the walls), the rules of evidence, accountability, being confronted by an accuser, and statutes of limitation have been discarded. This apparently demonstrates authenticity of one’s “seriousness.”
    Does this sound to anyone else like the responses universities demonstrated in burning books of discredited Jewish authors in the 30’s?


    W. Clark Boutwell

    December 12, 2014 at 3:42 pm

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