The police, not universities, should be handling rape accusations

Any conversation about campus rape policy will more than likely feature the following positions. One argument, often made by feminists and victim advocates, is that we need more guidance and support for victims. The other, expressed by due process advocates, contends that universities are unfair to accused men.

Each side is adamant that the other is wrong or exaggerating its claims, but both sides make good points. Universities mistreat both innocent men and real victims. We have to acknowledge that universities are not adept at dealing with either accusers or the accused.

My friend Grace Turner had an extremely inappropriate experience with her campus administration after she said she was drugged and raped by a resident advisor. She caught the attention of Seventeen magazine, which recently published a sensational article on Turner’s story. The attack happened in her apartment during a routine study session in November 2013, she said. Turner reported the crime to the administration, but has harsh criticism of its handling of the report. Unlike the famous Rolling Stone story about a brutal rape, which was proved to be false, this story has not been challenged.

After her attack, Turner, an East Carolina University sophomore, attended several meetings with a school administrator, meetings she described as “deplorable” because the administrator seemed more interested in keeping the story quiet than helping her. The administrator repeatedly reminded Turner that she was free to withdraw from the university at any point—something she had no interest in doing. The administrator continually pushed the advice that Turner should wait to pursue an investigation.

Turner suspects that this was a “brilliantly manipulative and strategic” tactic to see her either never pursue an investigation, or let enough time pass so that the chances of an expulsion for student rape would be diminished. The effect of a rape investigation and expulsion would bring negative publicity to the university and affect its crime statistics.

Turner explained to me that this administrator failed to tell her that East Carolina has a victim advocate, an Office of Victim Services, and a Center for Counseling & Student Development. Instead, she said, they offered her unlimited university-excused absences.

Turner said her biggest regret isn’t that she didn’t press charges, but that she didn’t realize sooner that the school was not going to help her. Offering unlimited absences can’t prevent an attacker from attacking again, or provide any emotional support. The administrator should have immediately directed her to the police.

She did end up going to the Greenville Police Department on her own to complete a rape kit; there she found more comfort and support from a special victims detective than she did at school.

In the end, she chose not to pursue an investigation for a variety of reasons. Restraining orders would have been complicated to work out, as her alleged attacker was a student at the same university. The detective was honest with her about the fact that the district attorney rarely takes cases like hers, and that a misdemeanor charge of sexual battery can be appealed quickly.

Despite the fact that she chose not to press charges, she says that she was treated phenomenally well and would strongly encourage others to report their cases to the police. She says the police offered her the unbiased perspective that the school failed to provide.

On the other end of the spectrum, universities do a disservice to those accused of rape.

Recent claims of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, Columbia University, and East Carolina University have resulted in either unfair punishment or premature public vilification of the accused, before the reports were found to be either suspect or completely fabricated.

At my school, North Carolina State University, according to a recent WRAL article, the campus police have investigated and closed eight sexual assault cases since August. In each case, someone was accused of sexual assault but in the end the accusations were either found to be false or there was not enough information for prosecutors to move forward.

That does not mean that the accused were protected from punishment. Reputation can be permanently damaged by such accusations, such as with the Columbia University student who was suspended for a year after an accusation of rape. In one ongoing case at NC State, I’ve heard informally that a student accused of rape in October has been suspended from his fraternity.

The problems facing men accused of rape have increased recently. In 2011, the Department of Education told universities receiving federal funding to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard to evaluate sexual assault complaints, rather than the stronger criminal justice standard of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The preponderance of evidence policy is the least-strict customary standard of proof, requiring only a 51 percent chance of guilt to rule against the accused. This “more likely than not” standard means that mere allegations could be enough to ruin a student’s life.

The sometimes tragic experiences of both accusers and the accused stem from one problem—that universities are expected to handle sexual assault cases in the first place. They are not equipped to do so, and when they do, the justice they mete out is anything but impartial.

Campuses are not adept at handling sexual assault issues because they lack experience, resources, and an unbiased agenda. Due process is immediately thrown out the window when we rely on the campus to punish the accused; injustice is built into the system. The customary standard, “innocent until proven guilty,” is reversed when we call on colleges to adjudicate rape.

Turning cases over to the police is the best way to provide the most options to victims, and colleges should even be required to send them there. Even if a woman declines to press charges, with the police she is dealing with people who are familiar with crimes and can give guidance. They are not restrained by fear of spoiling a school’s reputation or fear of worsening crime statistics.

Secondly, false accusers should be punished more harshly. Last fall, an NC State student caused a campus scare over the threat of a nonexistent white van kidnapping women; the school sent out an alert to the whole campus, which it rescinded six-and-a-half hours later. That student caused real harm and should have been prosecuted for her false report. Even more so, Jackie, the perpetrator of the Rolling Stone hoax, should face consequences for the national mayhem she caused, while simultaneously undermining real victims of rape. Instead, the administration rewarded her with new rules for UVA fraternities.

Fabricated rape stories harm not only those who are accused but those like Grace Turner who experience genuine attacks. Turner said in my interview with her, “People like me who are actually attacked are constantly questioned and looked down on” because of fabricated rape stories. False accusations may not happen as often as some claim, but they do happen. If a student can be expelled for rape without proof, students who make false claims that ruin lives should face expulsion, too.