I am sure you have heard bits and pieces—if not more—of the discussion currently going on about sexual assault on college campuses.
Sexual assault is real and is wrong. There is never any reason that could possibly justify a sexual attack. Period. But it happens. And it happens on college campuses—often. The conditions are perfect: young people with poor judgment (young men and young women), alcohol, drugs, freedom to make choices (good and bad), the desire to “experience” and the need to explore.
A report prepared by the National Institute of Justice found that one in five women are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault during their time in college.
But, many women are not victims of sexual assault during their time in college. And, some women claim to be, but actually are not. Now, here is where I FULLY acknowledge the vast majority of women are telling the truth. False accusations are found to be rare and are estimated to represent just two to eight percent of all accusations.
But, false accusations happen. And what I think my boys need to know is when accused of sexual assault, the world will assume you are guilty. Period.
Why is this an important thing to tell my boys? Because what I want to teach them—first and foremost—is to avoid situations that could give them the appearance of being guilty. And, what I am teaching them is what those situations are, how to behave, and when presented with a choice, which way to choose.
Now, I know what you are thinking here: but what about the victim? I get it. And I hear you. And, I feel for the victims…and there are victims. This is not a debate as to whether sexual assault actually happens on campus or not. It does—we know that. I know that.
I was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party at the University of Pennsylvania my freshman year of college. Like many women, I didn’t really realize at the time that it was assault. I blamed myself for ending up in that situation. But, a little later in my life, as I remembered that night, I realized it was an assault.
I had gotten myself in to a sticky situation and then, I decided I wanted out. I am not sure what happened, but I remember all of the sudden feeling very strange. His behavior changed and I felt like I was being watched. I wanted to go, but he made it clear I wasn’t going anywhere. First by the locked door with no visible way to unlock it and second when he grabbed my wrists and prevented me from moving with his body weight.
I know sexual assault is real. And I know some men do indeed commit these assaults . But, some are falsely accused and my point is, the system is not set up to flush out the facts and determine who is on which team. While these false accusations are rare, what’s important to know is that everyone accused is equally flagged as guilty.
There is no standard in these cases that requires evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a policy move frequently referred to as the “Dear Colleague Letter,” in 2011, the Department of Education advised colleges to act on a much lower standard of proof.
Colleges were advised to act on simply a “preponderance of evidence” and the letter goes on to say that, “Police investigations may be useful for fact-gathering; but because the standards for criminal investigation are different, police investigations or reports are not determinative of whether sexual harassment or violence violates Title IX.”
Essentially, if your son is accused of sexual assault, I think it’s important you should know—they should know—they are probably screwed.
The Department of Education doesn’t even recommend or require a student files a complaint with law enforcement. Instead, it says, “A school should notify a complainant of the right to file a criminal complaint.
In a story that appeared in the Washington Post in August 2014 entitled “Men punished in sexual misconduct cases on college campuses are fighting back,” the writer (Nick Anderson) tells the tale of Joshua Strange of Spartansburg, S.C. Strange was expelled in 2012 from Auburn University immediately following an accusation by an ex-girlfriend of sexual misconduct, even though an Alabaman grand jury found the case lacked enough evidence to prosecute him for the crime.
Anderson goes on to tell the story of a similar student at Brandeis University, who stated,” I wasn’t given a fair trial or anything. In the real world, rape and sexual assault are crimes punishable by going to jail—and rightfully so.” This student was never charged with a crime but was expelled from Brandeis.
Tovia Smith reported during an NPR story in September 2014 one male student accused of sexual assault who turned it around on the universities saying that the current process itself is a violation of Title IX as it is inherently biased against men. This, after the university expelled him following a hearing board where he was found “guilty” refused to allow him representation by an attorney.
An estimated 85 schools are currently under investigation for “over correcting” on the issue of sexual assault by being quick to react and withholding due process or failing to provide a fair hearing. That’s important to know.
So here’s what I have been talking to my kids about—mostly just my oldest as he gets ready to go to high school (which will soon lead to college), but sometimes the younger ones might here bits and pieces of the conversations too.
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Next, I have been talking to him about situations to avoid, helping him to start to consider how choices can have devastating outcomes (like getting accused of sexual assault and expelled).
Pay attention to your surroundings. Don’t be alone with a girl in a room. Don’t let your friends be alone in a room with a girl. Don’t be in a room with a group of boys and one girl. Essentially, avoid “he said/she said” situations where the only two people who know the truth have the potential to become defendant and plaintiff.
Control your drinking. I know they will drink, but we have certainly discussed how alcohol can lead to very poor choices and more negative outcomes—that are often difficult to undo.
Be careful who you are intimate with—for many reasons! This is but one reason why having sex or being intimate with strangers or acquaintances is a bad idea. I want them to know that it should only happen with people they trust. Sometimes even people we trust can betray us, but we really cannot control or predict when that will happen. Making smart choices about who you trust is something you can control.
The system is not set up for you—the accused. The current system clearly favors the accuser. And, while we know false reporting is relatively rare (at least across criminally investigated rapes), it happens. If accused, a boy will most likely not have the opportunity to prove his innocence.
I think my boys need to arm themselves with this information. Not to create paranoia, but to instill in them that the system is not set up to protect them—at all and therefore, they are responsible for making good choices. While they cannot control what others do, they can control what they do—and where they do it, with who.
My oldest recently went on the 8th grade right of passage—the trip to Washington D.C. Before he left, I reminded him that even if others were doing it, do not sneak in to a girl’s room, do not be alone with a girl in a room. Not because I don’t trust him, but because I don’t trust the system.