Even in the second decade of the 21st century, college campuses haven't consistently put rape victims first. This must change.
Rape is an enduring if ugly fact of life on college campuses. Just like binge drinking and illegal drug use, its persistence is unlikely to be significantly curbed by any new state policy. What can — and should — change, however, are the inconsistent and sometimes obstructive responses that the state's university and colleges have taken to reports of rape among their students.
That is starting to happen, thanks to pressure from students and activists. Last summer the Legislature began reviewing how California's public universities report sexual assault, deal with victims and perpetrators and how they refer cases to law enforcement for prosecution. Results are expected this spring.
Sen. Kevin de Léon, D-Los Angeles, introduced Senate Bill 967 last week to establish rules for how California's public and private colleges deal with sexual assaults on campus. Its main difference from current practice is that responses must be "victim-centered."
That's not merely placatory language. As Denice Labertew of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault points out, this bill would fundamentally change the way many colleges deal with sexual assault. It would make it harder for perpetrators to brush assaults off as alcohol-fueled encounters and make it easier for victims to report sexual assault because their confidentiality would be protected. It also requires colleges to partner with community organizations for rape prevention and crisis services. Significantly, it adopts in campus disciplinary cases the "affirmative consent standard," which means that "yes" only means "yes" if it is said out loud.
This bill was influenced by events at Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in de Léon's Los Angeles district. Last year, 37 students filed federal complaints accusing the school of underreporting and covering up the incidence of sexual assaults.
Similar stories have been recounted by students with regularity across the state and the nation. More than a decade ago, an investigation by The Sacramento Bee found that University of California campuses had skirted federal law by underreporting crimes, specifically sexual assaults.
Ideally, it wouldn't take legislation to accomplish consistent rape response at higher ed institutions. But even in the second decade of the 21st century, college campuses haven't always put rape victims first. This should change.
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