"But Why Are Colleges Involved In Penalizing Sexual Assault" Answered By President's Task Force
US President Barack Obama speaks on immigration reform at Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 25, 2013. [AFP]

The White House rolled out their promised task force on sexual violence on campus late yesterday and, having read over the materials, I have to congratulate the administration on a job well done. The main portal for information is a website called Not Alone, and it has resources for everyone who has a stake in this, including students, schools, and any outsiders like journalists who need information. There's even a helpful map of all the schools that have had Title IX/Clery Act reports written on them, so that students and journalists who have questions have a centralized resource.

But one thing I was super glad of is that the website clears up a question that comes up a lot when discussing campus response to sexual assault: "Why are schools dealing with this anyway? Isn't prosecuting rape the job of law enforcement?" The question is often asked in good faith, but I have recently seen an uptick in rape apologists tossing it out there as part of their larger mission of trying to find as many angles as they can to make it harder to hold rapists accountable. Though you can often tell which camp the person is in by how they ask, with rape apologists trying to undermine and insinuate accusers are frequently liars by saying things like, "If it's so easy to tell he's a rapist, then shouldn't it be a slam dunk in court?" or some such nonsense.

Either way, there's confusion here that this website clears up. A lot of people are under the incorrect impression that a university disciplinary committee is being used in lieu of a criminal trial. But this is not true, according to the website:

A criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve a school of its duty under Title IX to resolve reports promptly and effectively.

At other parts of the website, particularly in the section laying out best practices for schools, the fact that disciplinary committees are not and should never be understood as an alternative to the criminal justice system is made quite clear. Schools are told to make the option of calling the police available to victims and to provide guidance and support for victims who are including a criminal justice element in their response. They are also told to provide a handful of school employees who don't have a duty to report rape and make those people known to students, in case victims are not ready or are unwilling to report for whatever reason, but want someone to talk to anyway.

The main thing to understand is that whether the victim decides she wants to go to the police or not, the school has a duty to investigate and, by the preponderance of evidence standard (which means determining the most likely story instead of the higher "beyond a reasonable doubt" measure), determine whether or not to discipline the accused. And whether or not the victim goes to the police, during the process of investigating and disciplining, the school has an obligation to help the student feel safe, which means taking measures to minimize her exposure to the accused. Victims are not obligated to go to the police, but if they do, then that doesn't spare the university from dealing with the problem directly, for the safety of the victim and other potential victims.

Hopefully that clears things up. It won't, of course, for actual rape apologists, whose sole purpose is to sow confusion in hopes that this makes it harder for people to hold rapists accountable. But for people of good faith, this shouldn't be too hard to understand. Some victims understandably don't want to go to the cops. Law enforcement might drop the ball. But none of that means a university doesn't have obligations here. Just as a school might have avenues to eject students for fighting on campus without necessarily involving law enforcement, there might be situations where they do the same with rapists. But if the cops arrest a student for fighting on campus, we would also expect that the university would have their own process to eject the student. If we get this intrinsically for regular assault, then it shouldn't be hard to understand for sexual assault.

The sexual assault issue is the biggest issue politically, but I recommend checking out the website generally, because there's also useful information about sexual harassment and bullying.