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Yet Another College Under Fire for Mishandling Rape Case

Sunday’s NYT report on an incident at Hobart and William Smith Colleges comes at a time when the failure of U.S. colleges to address campus rape is under high scrutiny.

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The latest evidence that many U.S. colleges are badly bungling their responsibility to effectively investigate and address sexual assault on campus came Sunday in the form of a lengthy New York Times report on a 2013 incident at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York.

In that incident, a student named Ann a (she gave the  Times permission to use her first name) who was two weeks into her first semester on campus, reported she was sexually assaulted twice in one night by members of the college football team. Despite witness testimony and physical evidence, however, the college took just ten days to exonerate all three of the accused. Worse, the process by which it did so was slapdash, biased, and riddled with error.

The Times investigation of Hobart and William Smith comes at a time when the failure of U.S. higher education to address campus rape is coming under high scrutiny. In January of this year, President Obama created a Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, and in April that task force released its first report, along with resources aimed at strengthening colleges’ sexual assault policies.

The standards for sexual assault investigation promulgated by the task force so far are preliminary and partial, but even these initial materials make clear that Hobart and William Smith’s policies were deficient in the most basic ways.

The task force’s Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies, for instance, says such policies should be organized in a “clear, logical” way, and offers no-contact orders as an example of the “immediate steps” colleges should use to “protect complainants.” At Hobart and William Smith, however, the disciplinary panel overseeing Anna’s complaint apparently misread its own policies when advising her on appeals procedure and took five months to rule on her complaint that one of her attackers had violated its no-contact order.

Even more disturbing than these lapses, however, are the ways in which Hobart and William Smith’s defective procedures are in compliance with current federal regulations. In this regard, three concerns stand out: denial of counsel, inadequacy of training, and interference with ongoing investigations.

The federal government regulates campus sexual assault adjudications in a variety of ways. Campuses are required, for instance, to inform students of their right to make a complaint to law enforcement, and to use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in resolving all complaints that are addressed on campus. No federal law or regulation, however, gives students the right to have a lawyer, counselor, or other adviser present during their appearances before such judicial bodies.

At Hobart and William Smith, both Anna and the men in the case were permitted to bring an “adviser” with them when they testified before the committee, but in accordance with college rules those “advisers” were forbidden to speak at any time. As a result, Anna had no one present to assist her when members of the committee misrepresented witness statements to her detriment, asked her inappropriate questions about her behavior on the night in question, or invited her to speculate about events that transpired while she was blacked out due to excessive alcohol consumption.

Federal law requires that members of campus judicial boards such as Anna’s be trained in adjudicating sexual assault complaints, and Hobart and William Smith says the members of its panel receive “significant, multi-day trainings conducted by national experts.” Transcripts of Anna’s hearing obtained by the Times, however, reveal an astonishing lack of competence. In addition to the lapses discussed above, members of the panel interrupted Anna and each other at crucial, sensitive points in her testimony; on two separate occasions, members of the panel interrupted her description of the sexual assault itself to initiate questioning about unrelated, subsidiary issues.

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