Protecting Child Safety at All Levels of Society

1. Why can’t the police just handle sexual assault through the criminal system? Like it or not, colleges have to deal with sexual assault complaints. #UNCIX co-creator Amy Tiemann, Ph.D. was a member of the 22-person “Title IX Task Force” that spent more than a year working on suggested changes in the way that UNC handles complaints of sexual assault complaints among students. Tiemann was appointed to this Task Force as a representative of the larger Chapel Hill community, where she has lived for 13 years. This is the first in a series of posts about what she learned by being part of this process. #UNCIX

In any discussion of college campus sexual assault, it’s worth revisiting a square one question: Sexual assault is a crime. Why can’t the police just handle sexual assault through the criminal system? This is an understandable question, one that I have heard many people ask, even lawyers and government officials who might be expected to know the answer. In a perfect world, we would love to see police able to handle sexual assault cases with perfect understanding, compassion, and justice. But the truth is that for many reasons, including poor treatment of complainants by the system, people don’t always want to report sexual assault to the police. And even when they do, prosecutors can decide whether to proceed with a criminal case or not. In a difficult-to-prove case, a prosecutor may decided not to proceed.

Colleges and Universities have an obligation under Title IX law to handle all complaints of sexual harassment brought to them, in order to provide equal educational opportunity for all students. The Raleigh News & Observer summed this up well:

Why are campus sexual assaults not exclusively left to law enforcement?

A victim can report a sexual assault to the police but is not compelled to do so.

Under the federal Title IX gender equity law, universities are required to have grievance procedures to respond to reports of sexual violence. The federal Violence Against Women Act requires universities to have procedures for reports of sexual violence, interpersonal violence and stalking.

Students can report cases of sexual violence to the police and to the university, to both or to neither. The police can initiate a criminal investigation. A university can investigate and take disciplinary action against the perpetrator, such as suspension or expulsion. A university can also give protective help to the accuser, such as no-contact orders or housing changes.

This was an important starting point for our Title IX Task Force to understand. The University needed a robust, fair policy that can handle all cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other interpersonal violence. The University would need to take on difficult cases, including word-against-word cases and situations where there may or may not be physical evidence or outside witnesses. Understanding the nature of the daunting task that unfolded before us ultimately influenced the way we proceeded. We understood that the University is not the criminal justice system, and sought to create a disciplinary process that avoided creating a confrontational trial-like atmosphere, as much as possible.

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