If there is such a thing as an ideal way for onlookers to respond to campus sexual assault, the arrest and indictment of 19-year-old Brock Allen Turner would be it.
Turner, a former Stanford freshman and star swimmer, has been charged by Santa Clara prosecutors with raping a woman who was passed out outside a cluster of fraternity houses. According to county prosecutors, two students on bicycles saw Turner on top of the unconscious woman at approximately one a.m. Sunday January 18. The two students held Turner down while he tried to get away, and a third person ran to get police. Turner was arrested on the spot and sent to the San Jose Main Jail. He was released on bail, but within ten days the Santa Clara County district attorney charged Turner with five felony counts for the alleged January 18 incident, including one count of raping an unconscious person and two counts of sexual penetration with a foreign object.
While Stanford officials say members of both the undergraduate and graduate communities were involved in physically apprehending Turner, the criminal investigation was handled by law enforcement professionals -- not the university. That is the critical difference, and it’s what makes this case the textbook example of how a university community should respond to sexual assault.
With the increasing attention on campus sexual assault, too often the focus is on improving university policies and discipline procedures. While counseling services and other resources for victims of rape and assault can almost certainly always be improved, it’s a mistake to make university officials the main investigators, let alone judge and juror.
In fact, the problem is that too often university officials play all three of those roles, and it tends to blur any sense of due process for the accused. Two former male students at University of Massachusetts at Amherst--one accused of physical assault and the other sexual assault--have sued the school for violating Title IX in their disciplinary tribunals to expel them. Both claim biases in their disciplinary trials, including a denial of the right to show basic legal documents, have witnesses testify, or even ask questions during the proceedings.
“At these universities now, the investigators essentially act as gatekeepers of information,” said Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney representing the student expelled for sexual assault.
In one case, four students and a professor determined the student’s college--and therefore professional--future. An Assistant Dean of Students whose academic specialties are anthropology, archaeology, and film played a significant role in overseeing the investigations of both students.
“You're dealing with people at the tribunal and investigative level who are very accomplished in their field, but not necessarily accomplished in the field of investigating and adjudicating factually complex matters that need to be deconstructed,” said Miltenberg.
This system too often fails to deliver satisfactory responses for alleged victims, as well. Last year, a Harvard undergraduate wrote an open letter in The Crimson about her harrowing experiencing of trying to get her alleged rapist removed from her dorm. She turned to the university for some sort of reprieve, rather than law enforcement officials, but said the school was ultimately unable to transfer the man she said sexually assaulted her. She also claimed university officials discouraged her from pressing charges with the campus disciplinary board, leaving her without any satisfaction or protection from her alleged abuser.
In contrast, the Turner case was immediately turned over to police, not school administration. The district attorney’s office, not an anthropology professor, will oversee disciplinary proceedings.
Of course, there were other details of this gruesome alleged incident that made it more amenable to a swift criminal response. For one, it occurred outdoors, which meant there were multiple witnesses, so it did not devolve into a case of he-said, she-said. Sexual assault is so often a crime that occurs in private, without witnesses to provide clarity. That’s one of the reasons it is so difficult to investigate. It’s also why it is all the more important to have these cases turned over to people who are trained to look into it.
All victims of sexual assault -- especially those on college campuses -- need to be taught to go to law enforcement immediately. The charges against Turner mark a success for campus sex advocates--and it has nothing to do with California’s recently passed “yes means yes” law.
Instead of designing new policies around “preponderance of evidence” and creating more room for the violation of due process, sexual assault victims shouldn’t have to worry about a chain of command. They should be told to go to the police. Although these sexual assault crimes are emotionally and physically debilitating in a uniquely horrible way, law enforcement may make the difference for those seeking justice.