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Senate Panel Looks At Taking Sexual Assault Investigations Off Campus


The controversy surrounding the Rolling Stone article about an alleged campus gang rape came up during the congressional hearing today. While there are questions about that case, lawmakers warn it shouldn't cast doubt on other cases. Senators say the real problem is that most victims don't come forward. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the hearing focused on how to get more cases to police.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Virtually every story of a botched campus investigation seems to prompt the same question - why are these allegations of serious crimes being handled by campuses in the first place?

PEG LANGHAMMER: We've seen these horror shows on campus after campus. Colleges alone are not competent to handle the investigation and prosecution of these cases, nor should they be.

SMITH: Peg Langhammer heads a victim advocacy group in Rhode Island. She told lawmakers that schools cannot be a substitute for the criminal justice system because schools cannot really protect public safety beyond their campus.

LANGHAMMER: The most that might happen is an individual would be suspended or even expelled, But then free to go to another institution and we know that most of these individuals are serial offenders.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: I think a crime of rape off-campus or crime of rape on campus ought to be treated the same way.

SMITH: That's Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley.

GRASSLEY: And the sooner it's treated the same way the sooner that the message is going to get out that you can't get away with something on a campus that you couldn't get away with someplace else.

SMITH: Lawmakers say police also need to be involved 'cause colleges may still try to sweep cases under the rug. But the challenge is how to get cases to police while still respecting a victim's right to decide what to do. Many see the criminal justice system as re-traumatizing. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand cited several examples of what she called a broken system. In one case, police insisted an alleged assault couldn't be rape since the two students had once dated.

SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: The officer repeatedly stated that the perpetrator just got a little weird that night, right, and told her that a defense attorney would rip her story apart.

SMITH: More training for law enforcement is critical, says Angela Fleischer from Southern Oregon University, who helped create what's considered a model program of police-campus coordination. She told lawmakers police need to question trauma survivors differently than other crime victims.

ANGELA FLEISCHER: It diverges from a typical rapid fire questioning experience and departs from the typical linear investigation - where were you, what time was it, who were you with, those types of things - and just starts from where, you know, tell me what you can about...

SMITH: Fleischer agrees that victims can't be forced to take their case to police, but if you make the justice system work better, she says, they will want to. She's seen student reporting to police double. But Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner told lawmakers whether a case is ultimately prosecuted is another question.

KATHY ZONER: You can have the best advocacy, you can have the most willing survivor, but if you are stymied at any point because of lack of evidence, because of concerns about win-loss records for - very candidly put - then you can run into greater difficulty in getting more people to come forward.

SMITH: The key is boosting trust in the process, Zoner says, so victims will believe going through it is worth it. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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