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‘Rape on Campus’

In response to:

Rape on the Campus from the February 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

In her article “Rape on the Campus” [NYR, February 5], Zoë Heller incorrectly stated that the Women’s Law Project opposes the adjudication of rape cases by colleges and universities. This is untrue. The hotly debated question about which system should address campus rape—criminal justice or university—incorrectly assumes that only one must be chosen. The Women’s Law Project, which has criticized how each has responded to sexual assault, believes we need both and has engaged in advocacy efforts for reform in both systems.

Title IX, the civil law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, is an important and necessary response to sexual assault on campus. Under this law, educational institutions must strive to keep their students and campuses safe by prohibiting sexual assault and enforcing that prohibition. They also must do what they can to ameliorate the effects on the victim. We believe in more aggressive enforcement of Title IX, which promotes campus safety in ways that are not available through the criminal justice system. The Women’s Law Project has brought litigation and filed complaints under Title IX on behalf of students.

At the same time, we recognize that rape is a serious crime, frequently perpetrated by serial offenders. Thus, the criminal justice system should be available to students; it must contribute to a safer society by enforcing sex crime laws. However, having successfully advocated for reform when police fail to investigate sex crimes, the Women’s Law Project knows that bias against rape victims permeates the criminal justice system.

Students who look only to the campus process for help do so in part because they are reluctant to participate in a criminal justice process that they fear is heavily stacked against them. They fear that they will be re-traumatized. They fear that justice will not be done. Our experience is that these fears are well founded for both women who attend college and those who do not.

It is clear though that the campus systems are not performing any better. Much of what we are learning from the young women on college campuses, including the women we represent, is that many campus investigations and proceedings have been just as polluted with bias against rape victims as the criminal justice system. Students expecting a more thoughtful and collegial process have felt betrayed by their academic community.

Despite these flaws, the civil and criminal systems both serve a role in addressing sexual assault on campus. At times, both systems will apply to the same behavior, sometimes the same case. They both apply because they serve different purposes and appropriately entail different procedures—and both need to be vastly improved. We reject the dangerous idea that victims should be limited to one avenue of recourse. Or that advocates need to choose which system to reform.

Bottom line: Students should have the option to turn to both campus proceedings under Title IX and the criminal justice system.

Carol E. Tracy
Executive Director

Terry Fromson
Managing Attorney
Women’s Law Project
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Zoë Heller replies:

I apologize for having misrepresented the position of the Women’s Law Project. My belief that the WLP was among those organizations that have “expressed their opposition to having rape cases adjudicated by college tribunals” was based on the following statement from the WLP’s executive director, Carol Tracy, quoted in Philadelphia magazine last year: “My grave concern is the capacity, the competence, and the appropriateness of colleges dealing with rape outside the criminal justice system.” It remains unclear to me whether Ms. Tracy’s concerns have since been assuaged, or whether her stated views were never meant to represent those of the WLP. Either way, it seems I ought to have checked.