What we can (and must) learn from Princeton’s mishandling of sexual assault cases

Colleges and universities all over the country have been under fire in recent years due to a very simple shortcoming: not giving victims of alleged sex crimes the same rights and treatment as their purported assailants.

Title IX, a statute implemented in 1972, requires that individuals of both genders, in an educational institution which receives federal funding, are treated with equity.

Princeton University has been the subject of an ongoing Title IX investigation for the past four years, which culminated last week with an announcement from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR stated that the academic institution had indeed, in three reported cases, failed to “provide a prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual assault/violence, as required by Title IX.”

The OCR’s investigation found that Princeton required a higher standard of proof for rape survivors than the federally recommended standard. During committee reviews of sexual assault allegations, students accused of a sexual crime were also given resources and rights (such as the ability to appeal any decision made by the investigating committee) that were not provided to their alleged victims.  And one student, from 2010-2011, was actually discouraged from filing a complaint by the university. 

According to Huffington Post, the OCR’s investigation also concluded that Princeton “did not provide any timeframe for complaint resolution or appeals, did not provide clear information about how to file a report, and the policy did not provide an assurance that the university would take steps to prevent ongoing harassment.”

Princeton implemented a new sexual misconduct policy earlier this year to allay the OCR investigation’s concerns, and will have to reimburse a portion of tuition for the three sexual assault victims in the investigation.

Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton, said in a statement, “The agreement reaffirms our commitment to address all matters of sexual misconduct in ways that are fair, effective and transparent, and our determination to ensure a campus climate that places high priority on prevention and support, and on ensuring safety and freedom from discrimination for all members of our campus community.”

And it seems that Princeton isn’t the only school to have fallen short. In May of this year, The U.S. Department of Education released a list of colleges and universities which were under investigation for suspected Title IX infractions. (Around the same time, sexual assault survivors and activists petitioned the Princeton Review to include schools’ rape policies in its rankings.)

Though it’s somewhat mollifying that Princeton is taking measures to repair the trust with its student body, the fact that this sort of violation is so commonplace at universities around the nation is rather disturbing. The question which can’t help but spring to mind is “why?”

Why are these universities treating these cases with such seeming nonchalance? It’s obvious that this sort of behavior is unacceptable — so why are so many cases of sexual assault and harassment being dealt with poorly?

Earlier this year, a student at the University of Toledo filed a complaint with the Department of Education when her rapist was allegedly punished by her school with a mere $25 fine. Another student at Columbia who made sexual assault charges was actually asked by the investigating committee to draw a humiliating stick-figure illustration of the position she was in when she was violated.

This baffling behavior by university authorities is unacceptable. Aside from the the misogynist overtones of such responses, the fact is that colleges are insulated cultures in which people are, essentially, trying to grow up. Is it remotely beneficial to a student’s character to slap them on the wrist when they have perpetrated a morally inexcusable act? How can institutions like these mold students into upstanding future citizens without actually doing some molding?

Furthermore, by siding with the accused students in these scenarios, giving them extra leeway, and not expelling them, these institutions are essentially stating the belief that the repercussions of expulsion are more severe than the repercussions of sexual assault. That being forced to leave the university is too dramatic a consequence for something as commonplace as sexual assault.

While universities would vehemently deny such accusations, action speaks louder than words — particularly a lack of action.

Princeton, meanwhile, has agreed to change the way it handles such crimes on campus by providing educational prevention programs and “bystander intervention campaigns,” by improving their communication with local law enforcement and by closely tracking their own responses to assault claims. In addition, they’ll be reexamining claims made between 2011 and 2014 to asses whether or not they were handled responsibly and with equity. Princeton’s newfound promise to improve its handling of sexual assault on campus will hopefully set a precedent for other schools and improve safety on campus. It’s just heartbreaking to think of what some students may have faced to make these changes a reality.

(Image via)