Colleges: Don’t bury rape allegations

By Gus Bode

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, Aug. 24:

One Sunday morning last February, a 19-year-old Marquette University student tearfully reported to campus security officers that she had been raped.

The officers were legally bound to report that allegation to Milwaukee police. They didn’t. They told the student they didn’t know whether a crime had been committed because the alleged encounter began as consensual.


Result: No charges were filed.

In June, Marquette administrators acknowledged to Chicago Tribune reporters Ryan Haggerty and Stacy St. Clair that the university had violated its reporting obligations for the past 10 years. That is unconscionable.

Marquette is the second major Midwestern university to come under intense public scrutiny for the way it responds to students’ claims of rape or other sexual attacks. Notre Dame was blistered by critics for its handling of sexual battery allegations in the 2010 case of Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg. In that case, campus police didn’t interview the accused until two weeks after Seeberg reported the alleged assault to them. By that time, she had committed suicide.

Both universities now say they’ve improved the way they deal with such cases. That’s good. The key point for them, and for every college in America:

Don’t try to bury allegations of sexual assault with protocol and process.

Make sure campus police are well-trained to stabilize a situation in which a sexual assault is alleged. That includes making sure the alleged victim gets prompt medical attention and some immediate measure of security.

And then make sure campus authorities, even if they’re sworn police officers, quickly turn over the case to local police and … get out of the way. The potential for conflicts of interests are just too great. Let the local criminal justice system do its job.


Earlier this summer, a Tribune survey of six Midwestern universities uncovered some facts that won’t be reassuring to women reporting to campuses across the country right now, or to their parents. Among the findings: Women who report sexual violence seldom see their accused attackers arrested and almost never see them convicted. The rates of arrests and convictions for sexual assault on campus are much lower than those averages for rape reported in the general population nationally.

The stats: About one in every four rapes reported nationally results in an arrest. Of those, about 62 percent bring convictions. By comparison, the Tribune’s analysis found that at those six surveyed universities, law enforcement made one arrest for every 14 alleged sex crimes of all types reported on campus; of those, the conviction rate was 33 percent.

No wonder some college women believe that university officials and their police forces operate a system designed to protect the image and reputation of the university first, not to help municipal or county police aggressively investigate allegations of sexual crimes.

Law enforcement and campus officials respond that student-on-student sexual assault cases are difficult to pursue. Often alcohol or other drugs are involved and there are conflicting accounts of whether sexual contact was consensual.

Granted, many rape cases are difficult prosecutions, on campus or off. All the more reason for college officials to quickly hand allegations of rape and other sex crimes to local authorities, who generally have greater resources and greater independence to investigate.

By not reporting sexual assaults to police, Marquette officials opened themselves to accusations of trying to keep those attacks out of the public eye, even if that was not their intent. Marquette spokesman Kate Venne tells us that the school “is aggressively addressing the issue of sexual violence.” One major change: Marquette policy now requires campus officials to promptly report all sexual assault allegations to the Milwaukee police. Smart move.

Parents sending children to college each fall pose one question above all others: Will he, or she, be safe? Full transparency about dangers on and near campus only enhance that safety by helping students understand what places or situations to avoid.

The paradox, then, is that when school officials try to keep campus sexual assaults off the local police blotter, they ultimately risk the reputations of their institutions — and the safety of their students.