SMU's Baffling Sexual Assault Policy May Be Like Other Schools', But It's Still a Disaster

Last night, SMU's Daily Campus reported that university police released a crime report to students, informing them that a female SMU student was sexually assaulted at an apartment off-campus by a male acquaintance, also an SMU student. The assault took place on Friday, October 5 in the 3400 block of Asbury Avenue, west of campus.

It's the fifth sexual assault crime alert released to students this year, the third in just six weeks, and the first since the university's announcement last week that it would create a task force "to re-examine how the University handles allegations of sexual misconduct among students."

As everyone knows by now, thanks largely to an excellent series by three Daily Campus reporters, SMU handles allegations of sexual assault where both parties are students in a system of confidential on-campus hearings, in which the maximum possible penalty is expulsion. It's a baffling way to deal with serious criminal allegations, and it's persisted for decades, despite a similar vow by university officials more than 20 years ago to re-assess it.

In 1991, a male student was found guilty of date-rape by an SMU panel; he appealed the ruling and it was overturned, leading to criticism from none other than SMU's president at the time, A. Kenneth Pye. According to the New York Times, Pye said the case "raised questions about the university handling serious cases, such as acquaintance rape, and comparatively minor rule infractions in the same manner."

The District Attorney's office was also not happy. As Norman Kinne, the first assistant district attorney at the time, told the Times, "If they intend to substitute their system for ours, what is the most they can do to the offender -- kick him out of school? If that were done, and I was a rapist, the first thing I would do is go to school."

The university said then that it would "thoroughly assess" its judicial system. They must have found it to be in tip-top shape, because nothing changed.

SMU's current administration has defended the panel system and their handling of sexual assault as a whole. In a statement released to the Daily Campus in April, the university said, in part:

SMU works diligently to support its students who have been victims of criminal acts and will continue to encourage victims to file criminal charges with the Dallas County District Attorney's office, which ultimately determines whether a case progresses to prosecution.

SMU's current president, Gerlad Turner, even struck a mildly defensive note when announcing the new task force, stating that SMU's sexual assault policies "are examined regularly and mirror those of many other institutions."

It's possible that's true, but not necessarily in a way that reflects particularly well on SMU. A 2005 study by the Department of Justice found that many universities weren't fully complying with federal law when it came to sexual assault, either by not reporting their crime data to the feds, not providing students with information on how to file charges against their alleged attacker, or both.

SMU's sexual assault policy as it currently stands encourages students to report rape and sexual assault to SMU's police force, whether the rape occurs on- or off-campus. The policy also says sexual assault complaints are supposed to be made to the Office of the Dean of Student Life, to proceed onto the panel system. Students are told that if they wish to file "criminal and/or civil charges" as well that SMU police and Student Life will assist them.

Several other schools we looked at around the country have similar systems in place, with on-campus hearings being the first step and off-campus criminal reporting presented as optional. But the problem is that rape and sexual assault are criminal acts. Always. That doesn't change when they take place in a dorm room or a frat house.

But SMU presents the panel process as a learning experience, writing that they are "in the nature of a community seeking to learn if error has occurred and, if so, deciding how best to act so that in the future there will be less error." That might be appropriate for academic dishonesty or petty theft, but it's increasingly obvious that it's a totally inadequate and inappropriate response to a serious criminal allegation.

Its not clear yet whether the new task force will agree; it's largely made of SMU faculty and staff, plus a few current and former students. It will also include a former Dallas County assistant district attorney and the current chief prosecutor of grand jury and intake for the DA's office. They're expected to begin work this month and issue a full report by March 1, 2013.

In the meantime, SMU, let us make one more suggestion. Vaguely encouraging students to "seek medical attention," as your sexual assault policy currently does, is totally insufficient. Victims of rape and sexual assault need to know that they shouldn't shower, change their clothes, brush their teeth, drink anything, smoke, urinate, or take any medication until a rape exam can be performed. Here: let Sewanee University show you how medical guidelines should be written.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan