Friday, January 08, 2016

On leaving sexual assault to the RCMP

This week many of my colleagues and I published an open letter concerning sexual assault policies at UBC. In the letter we write that it's clear to us that in at least some recent cases UBC has failed to do enough to protect its students.

One response I hear pretty often to this kind of discussion is that it shouldn't be a university's place to deal with sexual assault at all. The thought is that criminal matters are best left to law enforcement. I have never had any sympathy for this idea, but it seems to enjoy wide currency, so I thought I'd say just a couple of things about it.

While it's important for criminal charges to be pressed against perpetrators of sexual assault, there are many reasons it's often difficult for victims to do so. For one thing, it is very difficult to protect one's own privacy when making a criminal complaint, and not all victims of sexual assault may want their attackers to go to jail for it. For another, there is often insufficient physical evidence to proceed to criminal charges or convictions. But this doesn't mean that in such cases there's not sufficient evidence to be very confident that misconduct has occurred. I think people manage to confuse themselves into this argument: you shouldn't take any action unless you know that some wrongdoing has occurred; the only possible way to know that some possible wrongdoing has occurred is for this to be proven in a court of law; therefore, you shouldn't take any action unless wrongdoing has been proven in a court of law. Once that argument is written down it's clearly unsound: universities know lots of things that couldn't be proven in a court of law.

What does it even mean to accuse universities of 'handling criminal matters'? Is the idea that universities are handling the role of law enforcement? They're clearly not; universities don't send rapists to prison, for instance. Is it that universities treat as relevant whether certain criminal actions such as rape have occurred? I take it to be obvious that the aims of a university are at odds with having serial rapists as students. I doubt I need to spell out that reasoning; so of course the university should respond to some criminal actions, like rape. "Just leave it to the RCMP" means the same thing as "ignore wrongdoing that you know about unless it's been proven in a court of law." This is inconsistent with our responsibilities of care.

I think this Title IX page contains some good thoughts and resources—obviously things aren't exactly the same in Canada, but some of the same considerations apply.

It's also worth pointing out that universities face many decisions other than whether to expel students. There are lots of questions about how to respond to allegations of sexual assault that come in at earlier levels. Should a professor move a student into a different discussion section in response to unproven allegations of assault? Can different dorm accommodations be found? Not all the things that should be covered in university policy are or should be punitive. Universities are communities, and we have a responsibility to protect our students. "Just leave it to law enforcement" doesn't cut it.

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