Rethinking Sexual Assault Policy

Dartmouth certainly does have a sexual assault problem, but it is not an insurmountable one.

Dartmouth certainly does have a sexual assault problem, but it is not an insurmountable one.

Recently, Dartmouth has been plagued by a string of attack ads run by UltraViolet that have claimed the College has a “rape problem.” Timed to coincide with the period in which prospective members of the Class of 2018 are deciding whether or not to attend Dartmouth, the impact of these ads could be devastating on admissions. In response to this negative publicity, the administration has begun a counter-advertising campaign urging readers to “see how Dartmouth is taking action” against sexual assault.

No one denies that sexual assault occurs at the College, but across the community there seem to be different perceptions of how widespread the problem is. Some people believe that Dartmouth experiences sexual assault at approximately the same rate as many other colleges and universities across the country. Others seem to think that sexual assault here is not a manifestation of a wider cultural issue that spans across the country, but rather a unique, Dartmouth-specific problem perpetuated by the Greek system and a concentration of students who frequently have the financial means to evade conviction.

Although the truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes, I would argue that the exact rate of assault here in relation to other institutions is irrelevant. Dartmouth is not just any college; despite the significant drop in applications for the Class of 2018, this remains one of the most selective and prestigious schools in the nation, if not in the world. Students here and at our peer institutions will someday become our country’s leaders in every discipline. From politics to finance to law to medicine to academia, the fields in which Dartmouth graduates have excelled and continue to excel are incredibly diverse.

Therefore, when discussing an issue like sexual assault, it makes little difference whether it represents a more serious problem at Dartmouth than at other schools or whether our assault rate is closer to the national average. Quite simply, as an institution that represents the future leaders of society, the only acceptable position for Dartmouth as a whole is to be actively leading the way in addressing sexual assault on campus. Anything less is an underutilization of the wealth of talent and resources that exists here in Hanover, as well as an insult to the victims of sexual assault.

The first important step in moving forward is for all members of the community to be clear on the category of person that is actually committing these assaults and to stop alienating those who are not. For the purposes of this article, I will be talking about heterosexual assaults with a male perpetrator and female victim. While other patterns of assault exist, the aforementioned is by far the most common and thus makes the most sense to address.

One of the biggest problems with the statements made by various student protests such as “RealTalk” and the authors of the “Freedom Budget” is that they implicitly, if not explicitly, tie sexual assault to straight, white, affiliated males. Studies have shown that over 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by roughly 6 percent of men. Therefore, categorically blaming fraternity members who make up over 70 percent of eligible males for a pattern of offenses committed by a tiny minority is completely inaccurate. It also has the counterproductive effect of alienating an incredibly powerful force within the Dartmouth social culture. This is particularly unfortunate because this force is made up of men who, with only a very few exceptions, want to help combat sexual assault.

Another area that needs to change is students’ perception of the administration’s willingness and ability to prosecute those accused of sexual assault. The reason 6 percent of men are able to account for over 90 percent of sexual assaults is that the assaults committed by these individuals are not spontaneous incidents, but rather a consistent and predatory pattern of behavior. Without getting into the details of any specific case, there seems to be a trend of these repeat offenders coming from fairly wealthy families, and this in turn has led to an unfortunate perception amongst many students that the College’s default response when presented with an accusation is to sweep the allegations under the rug.

Regardless of whether or not this perception has any basis in reality, the mere fact that it exists is a colossal problem because it is almost certainly discourages victims from reporting their assaults. Therefore, the administration needs to do more to publicly demonstrate to victims that they are firmly impartial in their investigation and internal prosecution of these cases.

One positive sign from the Hanlon administration is the College’s newly proposed Sexual Assault Disciplinary Policy, which represents a step in the right direction if not a comprehensive solution. This policy, which was released in March and was circulating around the College community for comment until mid April, contains several important reforms. These include a very clear definition of consent as it relates to sexual assault and a provision for the mandatory separation (expulsion) of any student found guilty of penetrative sexual assault.

A helpful additional step from a policy perspective would be to clearly state in the new document that an accused student’s prior sexual and disciplinary history should be fully admissible when considering a particular case. In the criminal justice system, these elements are, of course, inadmissible, because in a trial the accused can only be evaluated on the basis of his conduct during the specific incident in question. However, a criminal trial can end in an extremely serious punishment like imprisonment. In light of these repercussions, such a standard of evidence makes a great deal of sense. But because the most serious punishment a student convicted under the College’s system is expulsion (still serious, but nowhere near imprisonment), and because the ultimate goal of the College’s system should be to remove these repeat offenders who are a threat to the safety of our community, considering an accused’s entire history should prove both reasonable and helpful in the College’s judicial process. Such a provision may already exist somewhere within the numerous codes and policies of the Committee on Standards, but explicitly reemphasizing it in the new policy is still a sensible step.

The resources available at Dartmouth to victims of sexual assault need to be far more clearly delineated than they are at present. The administration, true to overly bureaucratic form, has created a veritable alphabet soup of student and professional groups to function in some capacity related to sexual assault. Examples include the Mentors Against Violence (MAV), the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative (DBI), the Sexual Assault Peer Advisors (SAPA), and others. For the sake of clarity for victims, these various organizations need to be condensed and streamlined into one or two well-organized and funded groups. There is no denying that all of these organizations contain bright and hardworking people with honorable goals, and this suggestion for unification is not meant as a criticism of them in any way. Rather, bringing these groups together would provide the victims of assault with a much clearer set of resources to turn to, which could make an important difference in a time of crisis.

Finally, another area for potential improvement is the counseling services provided through Dick’s House. I have personally heard multiple horror stories of sexual assault victims who sought counseling at Dick’s House, only to find that it is very difficult to even schedule an appointment. Once one had been made, many report that the counselors have ranged from detached to completely unhelpful. Although this evidence is anecdotal, with as delicate a matter as providing psychological counseling to sexual assault victims, it scarcely matters: if even one victim has a horrifying experience with the system, then that taints the reputation of first line of help for all others. Some sort of reform is necessary to ensure that this does not persist as an issue, even if it is as simple as hiring more staff members.

Overall, Dartmouth certainly does have a sexual assault problem, but it is not an insurmountable one. Rather than simply abandon this great institution as the UltraViolet campaign is encouraging prospective students to do, significant changes need to be made, especially with regard to the perceived and actual ways accused students are prosecuted and the resources the College provides to victims. The newly proposed Sexual Assault Disciplinary Policy is certainly an encouraging step from the administration, but more needs to be done if Dartmouth is to assume its rightful role as a leader amongst colleges seeking to address sexual assault on campus.