Let the Law Handle Sexual Assault

A Hamilton College “task force” convened over the summer to update the college’s sexual assault policies. On September 5th it presented a draft of its recommended policy updates in a meeting open to students and professors. A federal crackdown on sexual assault policies is putting pressure on school administrations to dodge federal inquiry and appear “tough” on sexual assault. In doing so, they have almost completely left behind the central issue: justice for the victims. 

Schools have responded to the federal investigations by enacting policy changes that make it easier for students to report assaults while weakening the position of the accused. Hamilton College has accomplished this by eliminating courtroom-style “hearings” that force the complainant (the alleged victim), the respondent (the alleged perpetrator), and a governing body into confrontations. In its place Hamilton has installed a two-part investigative and deliberative process that separates the complainant from the respondent while an investigation meets with each party individually. Then a deliberative panel, along with the Dean of Students, separated from the two respective parties, determines whether or not a policy violation has taken place. 

According to Meredith Bonham, Title IX director and a member of the task force, these changes were enacted to provide “fair and compassionate” policies to address sexual assault. Indeed, separating students makes reporting sexual assault less intimidating. But at the same time, allowing only representatives of the college to conduct questioning erodes the ability of accused students to defend themselves. This is particularly troubling when the investigation is conducted by an institution under pressure to outdo other colleges in proactively addressing sexual assault. 

The new policies are plagued with ambiguities and potential biases, like the “external expert investigators” appointed by the college who will “generally” be lawyers, chosen primarily for their level of “familiarity with Hamilton College culture.” These irregularities make it clear that the in-house administration of sexual assault policy is only “fair” to the extent that it yields outcomes subject to the college’s interests. 

But these issues aside, no college policy will render the outcomes that victims, not to mention perpetrators, of sexual assault deserve. The criminal justice system treats assailants who are proven guilty as the criminals that they are. And while police investigations and court appearances are at times extraordinarily difficult for those who believe they have been assaulted, the college’s extralegal “justice” system may be hurting students more than it is helping them.

Support groups and school administrators concerned about the biases and trauma of police investigations should re-evaluate why more of their efforts have not been directed towards ameliorating those effects instead of circumventing the legal process. Given the wide array of student and administration groups on campus, supporting and encouraging complainants in their efforts to find legal redress through the courts is already possible. But providing this support does not make sense at a school completely convinced that its own policies are a fitting substitute. 

Hamilton’s investigation process is rooted in the idea that administrators are the sole authority over the students. But there are other authorities, some more capable of handling different types of issues. Campus police, for example, are better suited for breaking up parties than are the Kirkland Police, who should be addressing more serious crimes. Likewise, the administrators should accept the fact that their own policies can only improve the current judicial court system in appearance. By circumventing the legal system, Hamilton contributes to the flaws of criminal investigations as much as it allows students to avoid them. Lost in the mix are victims of sexual crimes who trade the possibility of true and final justice for the mere dismissal of their attackers by a series of policies situated to grant the administration maximum control of outcomes.

Every college must confront sexual assault when it occurs on campus, and the ongoing “national conversation” makes for an ideal proving ground. At Hamilton College, the national conversation has become a springboard for policies that forgo the potential benefits of the judicial system while providing a biased and ambiguous solution in its stead. No school can hope to completely protect potential victims of sexual assault from the trauma of an investigation while simultaneously passing comprehensive and objective judgments, much less judgments that match the severity of the crime. As long as the Hamilton College administration continues to provide its own version of investigations, it will continue to view lending support to those who seek full legal redress impractical. The college’s unfounded belief that it can create the perfect justice system has made it unable to empower and encourage those it set out to protect.