Trying to Do the Right Thing on Sexual Assaults May Be Tantamount to Trying to Do the Impossible

Barnard College has been in the news because of its decision to follow the precedents set by Mills College and Smith College and to admit transgender students who identify as female.

But a recent memo of understanding between the college and the New York Police Department will almost certainly have much broader ramifications for the students at the college.

According to an article by Conor Skelding, published by Capital, a website devoted to news stories related to New York, the MOU “governs how the police and the college will cooperate in investigating violent felonies and missing students.”

Specifically, “Barnard must report violent felonies that occur on campus and reports of missing students to the NYPD ‘in no more than twenty-four hours . . .  provided that such reporting requirement shall take into consideration applicable federal law including those laws pertaining to sexual offenses.’”

Skelding provides the following background detail:

“Susan Herman, deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, said at a Feb. 4 hearing of the City Council’s higher education committee that because of changes to state education law which, in accordance with federal law, exempt sexual assault from mandatory police reporting, the NYPD would redraft its memorandum of understanding with each city university and college. Herman said at the time that the police were meeting with colleges and universities to draft an agreement.

“’The College/University and the NYPD each agree to cooperate fully with the other and to coordinate their investigations,’ the agreement says. ‘If the NYPD determines that the College/University is in violation of this agreement, State law, and/or is actively discouraging a College/University student from reporting an incident to the NYPD, then the NYPD may cancel this agreement . . . any cancellation shall in no way affect the NYPD’s investigation.’”

I am assuming that federal law exempts sexual offenses from the mandatory reporting period so as not to discourage victims from reporting those offenses. But if that is the case, the policy seems to me also to make it much less likely that such crimes can be successfully prosecuted. Moreover, since colleges and universities have to report regularly on the number of crimes that have occurred on their campuses, the different policies covering the reporting of sexual offenses would seem, almost inevitably, to muddy those statistics.

Carmel Deamicus has written a thoughtful article on these and related issues for the Atlantic, though she approaches the ambiguities from an almost opposite direction. The article is titled “Which Matters More: Reporting Assault or Respecting a Victim’s Wishes?” but its subtitle conveys its slant even more clearly: “A conservative reading of Title IX has some schools ordering faculty and staff to report cases of sexual harassment even when the victim has pleaded for secrecy.”

So, it appears to me that there is some significant disjunction between the institutional exemption from immediate reporting of sexual offenses to the police and the now more rigorously enforced mandate that sexual offenses be immediately reported to the institution.

The continuing muddle on these issues may be attributable to our trying to achieve well-intended but irreconcilable goals–to our efforts to find some middle ground between the victims’ desire to preserve their own anonymity and sense of privacy while also insuring that the perpetrators’ are held accountable and between the institutional desire to provide a safe and secure environment while also insuring that there is a very minimal amount of negative publicity. The fact that the handling of these cases seems to be getting ever more complicated, contentious, and fraught with legal hazards suggests to me that such a middle ground probably does not now exist and may be next-to-impossible to create.

Skelding’s complete article is available at: http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/city-hall/2015/06/8569234/barnard-debuts-crime-reporting-agreement-nypd

Deamicus’s complete article is available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/which-matters-more-reporting-assault-or-respecting-a-victims-wishes/276042/

 

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