How the 'Safe Campus Act' Would Protect Rapists

A recently proposed campus rape bill is supposed to make college safer. Instead, critics say, it will silence sexual assault victims and keep them from coming forward.

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Sep 14 2015, 10:25pm

Campus rape survivors and advocates have vehemently come out against proposed legislation that would restrict colleges' ability to punish accused rapists. The Safe Campus Act, which is currently being considered in the House of Representatives, is apparently meant to "protect victims of sexual violence [and] improve the adjudication of allegations related to sexual violence." However, critics note that it would prevent colleges from punishing any student accused of sexual assault unless his or her victim also files a report with the police; if passed, they argue, the bill will have a "chilling effect" on victims.

In a survey recently conducted by two anti-sexual violence organizations, 88 percent of rape survivors polled said that requiring colleges to involve the police in rape reporting would keep victims from coming forward. Many of the anti-sexual assault advocates who oppose the law point out that the criminal justice system has an abysmal track record of dealing with sexual violence­—there are currently over 70,000 untested rape kits festering in over 1,000 police departments across the country—and that many students are already fearful or distrustful of police.

Mandatory reporting [to the police], for LGBTQ survivors and women of color, is a disaster.

"Mandatory reporting [to the police], for any survivor, is the wrong thing to do. Mandatory reporting for LGBTQ survivors and women of color is a disaster," said American Association of University Women policy advisor Lisa Maatz, noting that law enforcement has a documented racial and gender bias. "In a perfect world, the police would be equipped to deal with these cases and would handle them fairly and would move forward in every instance. But we all know that the vast majority of these cases go nowhere."

According to Know Your IX co-founder Dana Bolger, there are many ways in which asking marginalized survivors to report to the police can result in increased violence. "Many survivors of color, who experience police surveillance and brutality every day, don't want to go to the very people who have been agents of violence against them," she said in an email. "And for male survivors and survivors assaulted by someone of the same sex, reporting to the police won't do anything: Many states still don't recognize rape against people of the same gender, or against men, as rape at all."

Read More: Telling My Campus Rape Stories

It's not uncommon for women who report their rapes to the police to encounter skepticism or scorn: Emma Sulkowicz, the former Columbia student who dragged her mattress around campus to protest her rapists' continuing presence on campus, spoke to Al Jazeera about her fraught experience with law enforcement officials last year. According to her account, one officer told her, "For every single rape I've had, I've had 20 that are total bullshit." This sort of treatment isn't merely anecdotal—a 2000 Department of Justice study found that only 5 percent of college students reported their attacks to police. Of the 95 percent who didn't, a quarter said they were afraid of being treated with hostility, and 27 percent said they thought the police wouldn't consider their case serious enough.

"Very few survivors report to the police, and survivors have told us over and over that, were the police further enmeshed in the campus process, they would simply tell no one at all," said Bolger. "That means that fewer victims will report to anyone and, accordingly, even more perpetrators will remain free to roam campuses with impunity. The 'Safe' Campus Act, then, is a misnomer: It'll actually make schools much less safe."

The 'Safe' Campus Act is a misnomer: It'll actually make schools much less safe.

Furthermore, Maatz noted, the Safe Campus Act reveals a "fundamental confusion" about colleges' responsibility to protect and uphold their students' right to education free of any sort of discrimination. Under Title IX—a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education—schools are legally required to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Title IX recognizes that schools' failure to do so creates a hostile sexual environment, one that interferes with students' ability to access equal educational opportunities. In other words: When schools don't properly respond to rape allegations, they violate victims' civil rights.

"The cops respond to rape as a crime; schools respond to rape as a civil rights violation and a threat to education," said Bolger. "When laws conflate the two processes, they discourage victim reporting to anyone at all." Bolger noted that, in addition to adjudicating sexual misconduct hearings, colleges also provide survivors with "services and protections they need to stay in school," including "free counseling, housing changes, and academic support." Requiring rape victims to go to law enforcement could cause thousands of students to lose access to this kind of essential help.

Perhaps most glaringly, the Safe Campus Act would permit colleges to continue punishing students for most illegal acts—like selling drugs, theft, or physical assault—regardless of whether the police get involved. According to Bolger, this sends a harmful message to survivors of sexual violence. "It's clear that what's animating the bill's authors' concern here isn't the violence per se but the people who typically experience it—women—and the special skepticism our society reserves for them," she said. "It drives home that we don't believe rape survivors. Why else would we be okay with schools punishing students who commit physical assault but not students who commit sexual assault?"