Investigate Campus Sex-Assault? It's a Must-Do

Monday, August 8, 2011

Schools have new federal rules about investigating campus sexual assault. A possible gray area in the wording could give some schools wiggle room not to investigate. Wendy Murphy says that would be a huge step back.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Federal investigations were launched last year against Harvard Law School and Princeton University for their inadequate handling of sexual assault reports.

Afterwards, Vice President Joe Biden visited the University of New Hampshire to announce new standards in a "Dear Colleague" letter from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Declaring that "rape is rape" whether it occurs on campus or in the real world, and whether the victim is sober or intoxicated, Biden left little doubt that his announcement was intended to inspire schools to do more, not less, to redress sexual assault reports on campus.

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But certain language in the "Dear Colleague" letter has given rise to a hairsplitting debate about whether investigations are mandatory or whether officials can do "nothing" if the victim doesn't want an investigation.

Brett Sokolow heads the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a Malvern, Pa.-based legal and consulting firm that provides training and educational programs to enhance campus safety. He says school officials around the country are arguing about this bit of language in the letter: "If the complainant requests confidentiality or asks that the complaint not be pursued, the school should take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint consistent with the request for confidentiality or request not to pursue an investigation."

The phrase "consistent with the request . . . not to pursue an investigation" is being read as giving officials the option to do nothing.

Some advocates for victims are pushing this interpretation, arguing that it more respectful to the victim to let her decide whether any action is taken, says Sokolow. The gist of their argument is that a victim of sexual assault has lost control over her body, so school officials should give her back some of that control by letting her choose whether an investigation takes place.

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