This week, two universities at opposite sides of the country announced incredibly lenient punishments for male students found guilty of sexual assault: one at Stanford will have his degree withheld for two years, and another at Brandeis will simply need to attend “sensitivity training.”
The Stanford case, in which the accused male student who claims to have “sexsomnia” (a supposed sleep disorder that he said makes him sexually aggressive while sleeping) was found to have taken advantage of fellow student Leah Francis, has led to wide protests on the Stanford campus. At a rally on June 5, students demanded mandatory expulsion for students who are found guilty of sexual assault and an expansion of services for victims. Though Francis has appealed Stanford University administrators’ decision, the administration reportedly responded that her attacker was not a threat to the campus.
“That makes no sense,” Stanford law professor Michele Dauber told San Jose Mercury News. “A student who is responsible for sexual assault by force is a danger to the Stanford community by definition.”
In the Brandeis case, rising senior and reported victim Joseph Babeu got a letter from the university saying that although the person he accused was indeed guilty of sexual assault, harassment and inflicting physical harm, the assaulter would get off with a warning and just have to go to “sensitivity training” classes.
“Honestly, I thought it was a joke,” Babeu told the Huffington Post. “Did they send me the wrong letter? I read the charges and almost nothing was happening — just a slap on the wrist.”
A petition this year at Brandeis calling for the establishment of a rape crisis center and a crisis response counselor got 2,600 signatures, but even though the administration says it is committed to “fairness, integrity, and proportionality” in combating sexual violence, three of the five students found guilty of sexual assault in 2013 were not expelled.
Reported “forcible rapes” on campuses have increased by nearly 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, and by graduation, 1 in every 5 women have been sexually assaulted. According to the Department of Justice, just 12 percent of people who are sexually assaulted ever report it for fear of bullying and slut shaming. Progress has been made recently — a task force set up by President Obama is working to standardize colleges’ responses to assault, California is considering legislation to update their definition of “consent,” and rape survivors are pressuring college rating systems like the Princeton Review to include more information about assault policies at universities.
But there is still much more that needs to be done. Just this week, the Washington Post published a column by George Will, in which Will argued that there’s too much focus on college sexual assault and rape victims now have “a coveted status that confers privileges.” It will take a long time to teach what “consent” means to all students and change the campus culture, especially among fraternities, of taking advantage of drunk women.
The central problem campuses face in punishing accused rapists is that there’s often no proof of the rape besides the testimony of the victim and the attacker. Schools have different policies on how much certainty is needed to punish students for rape, from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing” to “highly probable or certain.” These differences create fears among some that male students could be falsely accused and punished (one column in Time even asserted that the writer was more concerned for his son being accused of rape after “sex after a party” than his daughter being assaulted). Many cases also involve alcohol–including Francis’ case — which can complicate cases further since the definition of when a student is “able to consent” differs by school as well.
Despite those issues, though, campuses could do more to help victims of sexual assault and punish offenders. An investigation last year found that students guilty of rape tend to face extremely light punishment, and a national survey revealed that half of college students give their university a grade of C or lower on handling sexual assault. Just 9.8 percent of students gave their college an A on rape policies.
Student activists argue that expulsion of attackers is the very least schools can do for victims of sexual assault, who also need access to adequate counseling services. Some colleges are moving in this direction: Duke University recently established a policy making it mandatory to expel students found guilty of rape. Before the change, students guilty of sexual assault could be suspended for as little as three semesters, meaning victims could be on the same campus as their attackers within a year and a half. Forcing victims to live in close proximity to their attackers is a common dynamic at most schools, though, including prestigious institutions like Harvard.
Francis, who said she fell behind in her classes because she would have panic attacks when she saw her attacker on campus, concluded to Mercury News: “I just feel the university is trying to crush me right now.”
Abigail Bessler is an intern at ThinkProgress.