American colleges have a massive rape problem, and there’s no clear solution in sight

It's clear colleges don't know how to fix their rape problem.

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It’s clear colleges don’t know how to fix their rape problem.
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D.L. Turner/Michigan State Facebook

  • American colleges are failing on the issue of sexual-assault investigations.
  • They’ve ramped up policies over the past decade but still let down both victims and the accused with their rulings and punishments.
  • At their worst, weak sexual-assault policies allow serial abusers to remain on campus and assault victims.

American colleges have a rape problem.

They’re not going to solve it anytime soon. It’s clear they don’t know how.

Over the past decade, universities have clamped down on sexual assault on campuses at the federal government’s urging. They have offered students an alternative to reporting incidents to the police.

Instead, students can file complaints with the schools, go through a much faster trial-like process, and receive a ruling that may make their assailants disappear from campus.

But the system fails both women and men.

Schools issue weak punishments for heinous incidents

When a school decides it has enough evidence that a rape occurred, assailants don’t go to jail. Schools don’t have that power. Plus, they use a lower standard of proof than criminal courts. Their rulings hold no weight except on their own campuses.

Yale issued a written reprimand after determining a Yale student committed nonconsensual sex.

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Yale issued a written reprimand after determining a Yale student committed nonconsensual sex.
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Reuters / Michelle McLoughlin

Instead, accused students might get kicked off campus for a couple of semesters. Occasionally, they’re expelled. Many who are deemed to have committed wrongdoing against fellow students are allowed back on campus, graduate, and join the workforce.

A Business Insider investigation into Yale University’s process found that more than 60 students in the past seven years filed formal complaints of sexual misconduct to the school.

In 15 cases, Yale found that “penetration without consent,” “nonconsensual sex,” or “intercourse without consent” occurred.

Only five of the Yale-deemed assailants were expelled. The 10 others were suspended, put on probation, or given a written reprimand.

That’s right: Yale issued a mere written reprimand after corroborating allegations that a Yale student had nonconsensual sex with a female student.

Yale’s punishment tells students that even when administrators determine someone to be a sexual assailant, the person is OK to return to campus. Yale’s internal reports define sexual assault to include any kind of nonconsensual sexual contact, “including rape.”

Colleges botch assault hearings

But the weak response of colleges when it comes to sexual assault is just one side of the coin. Schools also botch sexual-assault hearings, with the potential to destroy students’ reputations among peers and haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Trials at universities are relatively quick, and the amount of evidence needed to reach a decision is much different from the standard needed in court. The verdict a school reaches may be different from one a court would if it were to prosecute the same case.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg believes criticism of college sexual-misconduct policies is valid.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg believes criticism of college sexual-misconduct policies is valid.
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Robin Marchant/Getty

There are legitimate reasons colleges should run sexual-assault investigations and hearings differently than criminal courts do. Schools have a duty to ensure their campuses are safe places for all to pursue their academic endeavors.

But that doesn’t give colleges a pass to deny students their constitutional rights. Lawmakers and legal experts across the ideological spectrum, from Betsy DeVos to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have serious reservations about the way schools investigate campus assault. Schools increasingly face legal action from students accused of sexual assault for infringing on their right to due process.

In the face of mounting pressure to fix sexual-assault proceedings, schools seem to take the path of least resistance to protect themselves from scrutiny rather than to genuinely work to improve their processes.

Larry Nassar, a former Team USA gymnastics doctor and Michigan State trainer, pleaded guilty in November to sexual-assault charges.

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Larry Nassar, a former Team USA gymnastics doctor and Michigan State trainer, pleaded guilty in November to sexual-assault charges.
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Thomson Reuters

They issue middling rulings that seem to say, We kind of believe the victim but don’t want to get sued, so let’s split the difference.

Another issue: Colleges conduct their proceedings largely in secret. It leaves everyone except a small circle of university appointees with virtually no understanding of how the process works and what rulings truly mean.

At their worst, the shortcomings in schools’ sexual-assault procedures can actually allow the abuse to fester.

Michigan State University’s bungling of a sexual-assault investigation against the doctor Larry Nassar is a prime example. In 2014, the school received a complaint from a student that Nassar massaged her breasts and vagina during medical treatment. Still, the university’s investigation determined that Nassar’s behavior was “medically appropriate.”

When the true scope of Nassar’s abuse came to light, it became one of the biggest sexual-abuse cases in the history of sports.

His nightmarish abuse ended four years later, only after a legal process began outside the school’s jurisdiction. Nassar was sentenced up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault.

It’s morally imperative for colleges to fix this

Rape incidents are some of the most difficult to investigate, both for colleges and for legal authorities.

There’s often no physical evidence of the assault, victims don’t always share details with anyone after an attack, and alcohol is often a complicating factor.

But figuring out a better system is not just a college’s responsibility – it’s a moral imperative. Certain policy changes, like removing barriers to open communication, are easy to implement and could have immediate benefits.

And its puzzling why, if a school finds evidence of a rape, the case isn’t always escalated to legal authorities to investigate.

A common frustration among both victims and the accused is that they don’t know how to navigate convoluted university hearings. Colleges must invite greater transparency in their sexual-assault processes and findings.

American universities are revered organizations and thought leaders that produce Nobel laureates, business innovators, and world leaders. Yet sexual assailants are often slipping through the cracks.

If these institutions, with billions of dollars and tagged as charitable organizations, can’t be trusted to at least move the conversation forward, why should families continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children there?

As long as colleges continue to do just the bare minimum to protect themselves, rather than students, nothing will change.

But their actions so far indicate that’s all they plan on doing.

If you have information to share, email ajackson@businessinsider.com.