Campus rape tribunals are an affront to justice

Victims and the accused both benefit when colleges defer to the legal system.

by Jasper Johnson

Discussing sexual assault and rape on campus is an upsetting thing to do, but it’s also necessary. This issue has deeply affected people I care about, and therefore, I don’t embark on this dialogue lightly. 
Put simply, I find the concept of a university internally handling rape and sexual assault cases to be abhorrent. Instead of handling cases this way, we need to abolish campus tribunals and allow the legal system to prosecute cases of sexual assault. By eschewing the justice system, we only do a disservice to the very serious nature of the crime of rape. 
Many people have argued that campus rape tribunals are inevitably stacked in such a way as to make them kangaroo courts. This obviously does a disservice to the community. The political climate at a university can influence a tribunal’s decision far too much for anyone to consider the decision fair. 
It often used to be the case that universities tried to preserve their public images by keeping rape cases quiet and denying victims the justice they deserve. However, now that sexual assault on campus is a mainstream issue, many universities make exaggerated crackdowns on very little evidence in order to somehow appear “tough on rape.”
Obviously, there are many issues with the way the justice system handles cases of rape. Victim-blaming is widespread, and the prospect of one young person filing charges against another can seem daunting. 
However, if a person has issues with these obstacles, the way to address them is not to develop a separate justice system on every university campus, but rather to collectively try to reform the way state and federal courts handle rape cases. If they want to get involved, universities could provide their students financial aid to deal with the legal system. 
A fair and legally binding court of law is the only form of justice that universities should accept. That is not to say, however, that going through legal proceedings is anything
other than a nightmare for victims. It can be extremely stressful for victims to recount traumatic experiences — unfortunately, this is the only way to achieve justice.
It is decidedly unwise for universities to make decisions based on internal hearings. I would think a major university would have the sense not to operate in its own jurisdiction but rather to defer to external courts. 
University hearings are much less formal and rigorous than hearings in an actual justice system are. School officials simply aren’t as trained as actual court officials would be.
The stakes are quite high, too. If they fail to prosecute offenders, universities could leave rapists free to walk the campus. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if a tribunal prosecutes someone innocent, a false conviction would ruin that person’s life. 
Schools simply don’t have the means to conduct appropriately thorough investigations. An analogous situation that comes to my mind is how the Catholic Church internally manages sex crimes. Quite obviously, having an insulated institution carry out its own “justice” is a less-than-stellar solution to a very serious problem. An institution will always have perverse incentives when dealing with justice internally.
Furthermore, universities’ rules can vary, but now it is becoming popular to advocate for something approaching presumed guilt. Of course, a university cannot send someone to prison because of conclusions made in an internal court. However, schools can expel students and cause irreversible harm to their lives. 
As a result, the idea of presumed guilt is another contentious topic surrounding rape tribunals. From my standpoint, we must always presume the innocence of the accused. I understand people’s mixed feelings about this, of course. Because of the nature of sexual crimes, it can be difficult to produce incontrovertible evidence, and this will inevitably result in some guilty offenders walking free. 
However, the United States justice system operates on this principle of presumed innocence, as it very well should. I view presumed innocence as a key issue in international human rights — it shouldn’t even be a question here on an American campus, but it is. 
An organization other than a court of law has no right to hold hearings and carry out punishments for a crime. Imagine what would happen if universities dealt with other crimes in the same way that they deal with sexual assault. If there were an assault or a mugging on campus, there would be no definite legal ramifications. Instead, some university officials would conduct an investigation that would, at worst, expel the mugger or assaulter. What would happen if the crime were murder? Clearly, treating campus sexual assault like an insulated issue gives it too little respect as a real, serious crime. 
While it can be argued that having the option for either campus hearings or legal action provides more flexibility for victims to seek justice however they feel most comfortable, this line of thinking does a disservice to the community as a whole. 
We have an obligation, as members of society, to ensure we carry out justice regardless of our own discomfort. It is absurd that the results and methods of an investigation for a crime can vary so wildly. Off campus, you may receive prison time after passing through a rigorous legal process. On campus, you may receive a slap on the wrist after a brief, one-sided hearing. 
To give credit where credit is due, I want to mention that the Aurora Center has proven extremely helpful to students affected by rape and sexual assault. It offers services ranging from counseling and housing to academic, legal and medical help.
If the Aurora Center did not need to deal with the bureaucratic absurdity of university disciplinary processes and hearings, it could devote more time and resources to these other issues. This would more positively impact students who need help.
This is an extremely complex issue, but I think that abolishing internal university sexual assault tribunals is a step in the right direction.