Campus Cops Fail (Again) To Deliver Justice In Sexual Assault Cases

Photo: Robert Judges/REX USA.
Disturbing news keeps coming out of the Vanderbilt University assault case. Four football players were accused of a 2013 gang-rape of an unconscious classmate, and two of them — Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg, both 21 — were recently convicted for their role in it. The men allegedly raped a passed-out student in a school dorm and filmed it. Recently leaked footage shows the former students lugging the unconscious woman down a hallway, “laughing as they photograph her and remove articles of her clothing.”

Perhaps worse? A year before Batey and Vandenburg were convicted, campus officials stated that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that “non-consensual sexual intercourse” had taken place. It's a disturbing, but all too common trend: The vast majority of college assaults are only reported to on-campus cops or school officials — which makes it extremely unlikely that the survivors will see justice.

The Vanderbilt case did end up in the proper legal system. Now, two students have been convicted and face decades in jail. The other two are facing trial, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating the school for its failure to take action.  

The way Vanderbilt officials handled — or didn’t handle — the case is, sadly, far from unique: Just 20% of college rapes are reported to the police. Lauren Chief Elk, activist and founder of the Save Wiyabi Project, says the failure of campus cops is sadly not surprising. “It's so sad and such a mess, and unfortunately not outside of the norm, especially with campus violence.”

The headlines are full of recent examples of campus cops' attempts at handling assault gone wrong.

At the University of Virginia, an alleged gang-rape survivor’s testimony was ultimately discarded by the court of public opinion after November’s Rolling Stone disaster. In that case, she had reported it to the school dean, but not the cops.

At the University of North Carolina, Landen Gambill, who told us her story this fall, was dissuaded from going to police by campus officials, who told her it would prevent an on-campus investigation (that's wrong). 

In 2013, an anonymous student at the University of Southern California claimed that, after she called campus police to report being raped, the officers told her that what had happened to her wasn’t a crime because her alleged attacker didn’t orgasm (yes, you read that correctly). The campus cops reportedly concluded, "Even though his penis penetrated your vagina, because he stopped, it was not a crime." The school was slapped with a federal investigation for its failures to adequately deal with on-campus sexual assaults.

Then, there was Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who says she was raped in her dorm room the first night of her second year at college. Sulkowicz turned her rage about the incident into a performance-art piece, "Mattress Performance: Carry That Weight," in which she and other students carried a mattress around Columbia’s campus as a way to pressure her alleged assailant into leaving school (either by university measures or on his own). Two other women reported being assaulted by the same student, and alarmingly, he’s still at Columbia after being cleared in all the cases.

Chief Elk points out that, just because campus justice often fails, it doesn't mean the local police are a perfect solution: "There are many reasons victims don't report to law enforcement, as they often disbelieve and re-victimize those who report. We also have an astronomical rape-kit backlog, we criminalize victims, and police sexual violence is its own national emergency.” But, local police may still be the better option.

year-long study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity determined that “students found ‘responsible’ for sexual assaults on campus often face little or no punishment from school judicial systems.” Maybe this inaction in the face of such a sweeping problem — remember that one-in-five statistic? — shouldn’t be surprising, given America’s astoundingly active rape culture. The undercurrent of denial can feel, at times, impermeably strong. 

Many students at Vanderbilt weren’t even aware of the rape when the convictions were handed down, and bystanders at the scene of the attack reportedly didn’t do anything to intervene (or call police). 

“The safety and security of our students is Vanderbilt’s top priority,” said Beth Fortune, the vice chancellor for public affairs, in the school’s sole statement about the players’ convictions. “Sexual violence will never be tolerated.”

But, at many colleges, it seems that it will. What needs to change, STAT, are the rape laws themselves. As Northwestern law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer notes in The New York Times, in a majority of states, “rape is still defined as requiring physical force” — the notion of date or acquaintance rape is apparently not even on the table. Of course, reporting sexual assaults to police isn’t infallible, either: As Chief Elk noted, various police departments have their own histories of sexual violence, and not every woman’s account is handled properly by law enforcement or the courts. But, a crime is a crime, and rape must be treated like one, no matter where — or by whom — it is perpetrated.
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