Report: Campus judicial boards hand out little punishment for sexual offenses

Students found responsible for sexual assault often face little punishment from campus judicial boards, according to a recent report on the subject.

A February study by the Center for Public Integrity, an organization that presents investigative journalism on public issues, showed that students found guilty of abuse receive “little more than slaps on the wrist.” The study also cited a Department of Justice report that said roughly one in five women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape over the course of their college career.

“Administrators believe the sanctions administered by the college judicial system are a thoughtful and effective way to hold abusive students accountable, but the Center’s investigation has discovered that ‘responsible’ findings rarely lead to tough punishment like expulsion – even in cases involving alleged repeat offenders,” the report said.

The February CPI report found that overall, campus hearings on sexual assault cases have little transparency or accountability, as well. Additionally, an earlier CPI report on a similar subject said that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – whose regulations protect the privacy of student education records – colleges can still release names of “students found ‘responsible’ for committing violent acts.”

“Victim advocates contend that colleges use the law as a smokescreen to cover up campus crimes,” the report states.

At GW, sexual assault cases reported to campus officials are handled by Student Judicial Services, as sexual assault is considered a violation of the “Code of Student Conduct.” But University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard declined to divulge any information about the sexual assault cases or the results that go through SJS, citing FERPA.

For example, in early March, the University Police Department identified a graduate student as the suspect in the alleged fondling incident that occurred in the Gelman library in February. The suspect was “referred to Student Judicial Services for appropriate action,” a statement from the University said, but Sherrard said that due to FERPA, the University cannot say whether or not the suspect was charged or given a punishment of any kind. The victim did not file an MPD police report.

Freshman Emily Rasowsky, president of GW Students Against Sexual Assault – a recently formed student organization which seeks to increase awareness in order to eradicate sexual assault – said the results of the CPI study do not surprise her.

“It doesn’t completely surprise me just because I know that, from a university standpoint, it doesn’t look as great to have as many reports of sexual assault, to have harsher punishments, just as far as positive publicity and such,” Rasowsky said. “I think that that’s something that needs to be addressed and fixed in a lot of ways.”

When a student reports that he or she has been sexually assaulted by another student, SJS conducts an investigation. But according to The Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities 2009-2010, the investigation does not include “formal rules of evidence” in order to ensure confidentiality.

Tara Pereira, the director of SJS, said typical evidence presented in a disciplinary proceedings consists of administrative and police reports and verbal or written statements from individuals involved in the incident, including the charged student, the complainant, and other witnesses.

Hearings are closed to the public, but are tape recorded or transcribed. Unlike other SJS cases, complainants in cases of sexual assault or other types of physical violence are offered a support person in the hearing, and are also allowed to not see the charged student during the proceeding. If the victim is not comfortable being questioned directly by the charged student, they can request all questions be asked through a hearing board, Pereira said. She added that medical exams are not a requirement, but if the complainant provides medical documentation, it is typically accepted and provided to the Hearing Board for consideration.

After an investigation, a hearing is held to determine whether a violation has actually occurred. Penalties for students charged with sexual assault can include suspension or expulsion from the University.

“Not all of these cases result in students being charged, however. In some cases this is because the victim of a sexual assault does not want to go forward with judicial charges even though they can remain anonymous,” Pereira said.

Another key difference between sexual assault cases and other SJS cases is that complainants in sexual assault cases themselves have the right “to know the outcome of the case” and “the final sanction(s) imposed,” Pereira said.

When it comes to filing an official police report, the CPI report said often these cases are never brought to court because there tends to be a lack of forensic evidence, such as the medical exam.

At GW, if a student does choose to press charges with MPD, the Sexual Assault Crisis Consultation Team, a group that assists victims of sexual assault on campus, recommends on its website that student victims reach out to a SACC Team member or GWPD before the charges are filed. Though the number of students that SACC assists varies from year to year, the team assisted eight victims in 2009, said Erin Harpine, UPD coordinator of victim services and educational initiatives.

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