Duke doesn’t have a mandatory minimum sentence for any violations of the student code, including rape. Previously, when students were charged with sexually assaulting one of their peers, the recommended penalty was a suspension for anywhere between three and six semesters. That means a rapist could conceivably wind up back on campus alongside their victim within just a year and a half of the assault.
According to the Chronicle, Duke’s campus newspaper, the student government began pushing to change the policy earlier this year. “We’re really confident that this new change is a step in the right direction toward both preventing and addressing sexual assault on campus, as stricter sanctions are a critical aspect of gender-violence prevention,” Duke’s student government president, Stefani Jones, explained.
Duke now joins Vassar College, an institution that is already well-known for its minimum penalties for sexual assault. Vassar students who are found guilty of rape are immediately expelled from the college.
But that kind of policy is still rare at most universities. Due to the hostile rape culture on college campuses that often blames victims for inviting sexual assault, and ostracizes them once they come forward, the vast majority of rapes among college students go unreported. And college’s lenient sexual assault policies often allow serial rapists to evade punishment even when they are found guilty. An investigation from the Center for Public Integrity found that college rapists often receive extremely light punishment, like social probation or academic penalties, instead of being suspended or expelled.
Over the past year, a network of student activists have begun pushing their colleges to better handle rape cases on campus. Students at several elite universities — including Yale, Amherst, Swarthmore, Dartmouth, and Princeton — have accused their administrators of failing to take sexual assault seriously, and choosing to sweep it under the rug rather than working to bring rapists to justice.
That student activism has successfully pressured some universities to start amending their sexual assault policies. Duke is already somewhat ahead of the curve. About two years ago, Duke became one of the few colleges to institute a mandatory reporting policy, which allows university employees to report cases of sexual misconduct to the administration even if the victim does not choose to report it themselves. After that policy was instated, reports of sexual assault on Duke’s campus jumped from 20-30 cases during one year to more than 100 cases during the next.