WASHINGTON — Only a fraction of campus sexual assault victims go to police. Senators on Tuesday grappled with the thorny issue of why some just let their college handle it — or don't report it at all.
Some sexual assault victims have said they prefer to work within their university system to seek disciplinary action against the perpetrator, such as expulsion, without the stress of pressing criminal charges. But there have been complaints that universities have encouraged victims not to seek criminal action because they want to protect the university's reputation or that schools aren't prepared to adequately adjudicate such cases.
"I am concerned that law enforcement is being marginalized when it comes to the crime of campus sexual assault," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the subcommittee chairman, at a hearing on the issue. "I'm concerned that the specter of flawed law enforcement overshadows the harm of marginalized law enforcement."
The hearing, focused on the relationship between police departments and campuses, comes following a high-profile Rolling Stone article that described a gang rape alleged to have occurred in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The magazine later acknowledged mistakes in its reporting.
In many cases, victims aren't told they can pursue a criminal case, testified Peg Langhammer, executive director of the Day One organization in Providence, Rhode Island.
Whitehouse said victims are victimized again if they are steered away from law enforcement based on uninformed choices. Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney and attorney general in his home state, said evidence shows that most men who commit these crimes are serial offenders — and a threat to public safety. He said students have a right to know that delays opening an investigation and collecting evidence, which could make the case difficult to prove later.
On campuses, there's often no clearly identified place for a victim to seek help, testified Angela Fleischer, assistant director of student support and intervention for confidential advising at Southern Oregon University, which links law enforcement and campus administrators in cases of sexual assault.
While some victims do immediately call the police or go directly to a hospital for an exam, others seek out a friend, family member or trusted person on campus and it's not immediate that they process what happened, Fleischer said after the hearing.
"Sometimes victims and survivors aren't calling what happened to them rape," Fleischer said. "They know something bad happened, something they were displeased with, but they aren't always thinking a crime of rape was committed against me."
She stressed the importance of close coordination between the campus and local police and said reporting of campus sexual assaults has increased since the school began working with law enforcement to make it a "viable, victim-centered option."
Many schools have their own police forces, but their role varies from campus to campus. About a third of schools said campus police and security guards weren't required to be trained to respond to reports of sexual violence, according to a survey released earlier this year by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
She said that the criminal justice system has been "very bad" in its handling of victims — much worse than the military or campuses — and that has left many victims' advocates with the belief that campus sexual assault cases are better handled within a college's system. Complicating and confusing the situation, she said, is that the criminal justice system and federal education law each have their own protocols for how the cases should be handled.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is co-sponsoring a bill with McCaskill that would force colleges to have a memorandum of understanding with their local law enforcement over handling such cases. She said the ultimate goal is that 100 percent of victims report to police. "But, time and again, I have heard from far too many survivors of campus sexual assault that they have felt re-victimized by the process of trying to seek justice for the crime committed against them," Gillibrand said.
Kathy Zoner, chief of the Cornell University Police, testified that while a memorandum of understanding can be helpful, it won't necessarily solve the problems. She said there's no guarantee that local law enforcement will cooperate and some governmental agencies have policies prohibiting them.
The legislation is supported by a bipartisan group of senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
"It's high time to make sure that a crime is a crime wherever it's committed," Grassley said.
Reports of sexual assault on campus rose 50 percent from 2009 to 2012, Whitehouse said, citing federal data. He said the vast majority of offenses go unreported.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 women is assaulted during their college years.
The Obama administration has taken steps in the last year to highlight the problem and to pressure universities to better assist victims.
Both McCaskill and Gillibrand said they are concerned that the Rolling Stone story may be held up as a reason not to believe survivors when they come forward. McCaskill called it "bad journalism" and said rape is not a crime with rampant false reporting by victims.
"It has never been about this one school and it is painfully clear that colleges across the country have a real problem with how they are handling, or not handling, cases of sexual assault on their campuses," Gillibrand said.