Addressing campus sexual assault: Individual allegations and systemic reform

I read Sabrina Erdely’s article, “A Rape on Campus,” the day Rolling Stone published it online.  The account details allegations by “Jackie,” a UVA undergraduate, that a group of UVA fraternity brothers sexually assaulted her at a fraternity party.  Like most readers, I admired the author, I felt deep-seated anger at the university, and I hoped that the article would be a first step in providing some level of justice to a victim who had been ignored by a powerful institution.  As Jackie’s account became subject to speculation that Erdely had not done her due diligence in investigating Jackie’s statements, I couldn’t help but see parallels between this incident and the Duke Lacrosse case, which unfolded at my alma mater.

Rather than frat boys, the accused were athletes at another well-heeled Southern school.  They certainly engaged in less-than-admirable behavior, but as the drama unfolded in Durham, it became painfully clear that the accuser’s account was fabricated.  Nonetheless, in the intervening months between the allegations and the eventual dismissal of all charges, Duke and the broader Durham community suffered wounds, many of them self-inflicted, that will never fully heal.  Protestors banged pots and pans outside the homes of the accused students.  Students were threatened with violence just by virtue of attending Duke.  88 professors issued a statement condemning the University as a “social disaster.”  The lacrosse team lost its coach and its season.  Commentators have estimated that the incident has cost the university over $100 million in public relations and litigation costs.

The paradigm is a dangerous one.  A purported victim voices allegations of sexual assault against an institution only to have the truth of the individual account questioned.  As the veracity of the individual narrative comes into question, the public’s interest in the matter fades, and any momentum toward creating meaningful change wanes.  Nonetheless, we owe it to all sexual assault victims to take back the media-driven spotlight that focuses on individuals and instead redirect it to the systemic issues that perpetuate sexual assault on college campuses.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s recent editorial in The New Republic that he co-authored with Columbia Law Professor Suzanne Goldberg is an example of the type of long-term structural change that can be brought about in response to individual complaints of sexual assault on campus.  Bollinger and Goldberg authored the editorial in the wake of the Carry that Weight protest led by Columbia University undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz, who states that Columbia University has permitted a serial rapist to remain a student at the university.  Although adhering to the university’s absolute rule against commenting on individual allegations of sexual assault, Bollinger and Goldberg outlined systemic changes the university has undertaken in recent months to address campus sexual assault, including opening a second rape crisis center with twice the staff previously available, providing 24-hour access to these staff, creating a new gender-based misconduct policy, providing counsel to students undergoing the disciplinary process, and hiring staff to the gender-based misconduct office whose sole responsibility is arranging accommodations, accessing resources, and educating them about the disciplinary process.

That the South, and by association the schools who reside there, is a region still fraught with sexism, racism, and violence doesn’t surprise anyone who has spent any significant amount of time there.  I have no doubt that irrespective of Jackie’s individual account, many of the broader problems Erdely highlights in her article about UVA’s mishandling of complaints of sexual assault are dead on. As disputes about the individual allegations in Erdely’s article continue, we should not lose focus on the opportunity we have to address the systemic problems of obstruction, indifference, and ignorance that attend sexual assault prevention and discipline at so many of our educational institutions.

Aubrey Smith

Aubrey Smith is a lawyer. He is also an awesome dude.

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