Finger Lakes Times: Campus tribunals can't provide justice

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2014 5:00 am | Updated: 3:07 pm, Mon Jul 21, 2014.

James Matthews

Like many, I was troubled by The New York Times story of how Hobart and William Smith Colleges appeared to mishandle a complaint of sexual assault brought by Anna, an 18-year-old student. “Horrific” and “sickening” were words that came to mind. Being a Hobart alum, and a resident of Geneva, it hit home.

Based on the NYT article, it seems that the Colleges seriously botched the investigation and denied justice to Anna. “With no advocate to speak up for her at the disciplinary hearing, panelists interrupted her answers, at times misrepresented evidence and asked about a campus-police report she had not seen. The hearing proceeded before her rape-kit results were known, and the medical records indicating trauma were not shown to two of the three panel members.”

However, the more I learn about the case, the more questions I have. It seems more complex than the NYT presented, and I don’t believe we have all the facts. The Finger Lakes Times’ interview with the Geneva police made clear that the police were more on top of the case - from 90 minutes after the alleged assault and for months later - than the NYT suggested. That interview also revealed that “police were contacted by the student’s current attorney, Inga Parsons, and were told a sexual assault kit had been done at the hospital but wasn’t being turned over to police because of possible use for civil needs.” Why didn’t the NYT mention this?

Key questions went unexamined by the NYT, as pointed out by K.C. Johnson, who co-wrote the authoritative account of the Duke lacrosse rape case. Why didn’t the NYT seek to obtain comments from the accused students? Why didn’t it attempt to explain why Anna’s unnamed male friend, who was said to have witnessed her being assaulted at the building known as the Barn, refused to testify at the Colleges’ in-house panel? The NYT makes it seem like there was an open-and-shut case against the accused; but if so, why did the Ontario County District Attorney decide to not press charges?

A complete account may never be made public. But one thing does emerge clearly: Anna’s case shows that campus tribunals, like the HWS one that she appealed to, are ill-equipped to provide justice when it comes to violent crimes like sexual assault. We would never expect a college to try a murder case; why should it try a rape case?

President Obama’s administration is using its authority under Title IX (which is intended to provide women with equal access to education) to expand the role of college tribunals to adjudicate cases of sexual assault. This is a mistake. Such disciplinary boards do not have the expertise to investigate such crimes nor the means to appropriately punish those convicted of them.

As specified by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, all educational institutions receiving federal funding must conform to certain procedures and standards when investigating sexual misconduct. But these guidelines deny participants in the process basic legal rights - such as the right to have legal representation and view evidence against them, known as “discovery.” In a court of law, certain evidence is excluded (such as hearsay) and testimony is given under oath and subject to perjury - but such protections are absent in a college tribunal.

The lack of legal safeguards potentially harms both the accuser and the accused. The NYT story highlighted how Anna claimed she was not able to see a campus police report that was used in the tribunal. Across the country, a number of colleges now face lawsuits from expelled students claiming they were denied due process under disciplinary procedures.

These federal requirements place the most well-intentioned college administrator in a no-win situation. Even if they follow the rules, and their college’s tribunal believes it reached a fair verdict, the losing party will always have some grounds for claiming they were denied full legal rights. In the aftermath of the HWS case, there are calls to “reform” campus sexual assault tribunals nationally, but a better aim would be to scrap them entirely and ensure those potential crimes are channeled via the police and the legal system.

Colleges have a moral and legal obligation to keep their campuses safe and to support their students, but they should not be expected to undertake the task of rendering justice in cases of heinous crimes like rape. I hope that HWS - having now experienced close up the problems that result from federal government demands to create parallel systems of justice on campuses - becomes a leading voice in opposing them.

James Matthews, a 1983 graduate of Hobart College, lives in Geneva.


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