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Editorial: Sanctions for Sex Assault

Now that Dartmouth College is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its handling of sexual misconduct cases, the administration appears ready to toughen its disciplinary procedures. It’s about time. Current sanctions, such as they are, have not deterred egregious student behavior. Sexual assault, including rape, is alarmingly common at Dartmouth, and more frequent than at other comparable colleges, according to federal data tracking reported crimes.

Of course, the actual number of sexual assaults is certainly higher than reported incidents suggest, and thus perpetrators often remain on campus, preying on women in their favored hunting grounds — the fraternity basements where so many vile acts occur. Campus surveys and research by the college suggest that as many as one in four female students can expect to be sexually assaulted during their four years at Dartmouth, and that freshmen and sophomores are at particular risk.

President Phil Hanlon is now soliciting comment from the community on a revised disciplinary policy that would toughen sanctions for students found to have committed sexual assault. The existing policy prohibits students and student organizations from engaging in sexual misconduct of any kind, of course, but it acknowledges a “wide spectrum of behaviors” that call for a “variety of sanctions.” In recognizing a range of behaviors, the college implicitly tolerates too many. Very few cases come before the panel that considers evidence against students accused of assault (31 between 2000 and 2010), and few students are ever expelled for sexual misconduct, including rape.

The draft revision is crisper in its condemnation of sexual misconduct and clearer about the consequences. It is also much more explicit about what constitutes rape. Perhaps the blunt language is an attempt to erase any confusion in the minds of students, some of whom apparently associate the crime with a night of fun and drinking games — at least judging by an Internet message board favored by Dartmouth students that recently included a “rape guide” posted anonymously. New rules might not deter predatory students from targeting specific women, but at least they state unequivocally that rape would lead to expulsion. That’s a punishment commensurate with the offense and a necessary response both from the point of view of the victim, who shouldn’t have to encounter her attacker in the lecture hall or the canteen, and from an institution responsible for ensuring the safety of its students. It’s appalling to think that the punishment for rape is currently discretionary.

The college also proposes to change the procedures whereby assault cases are investigated and adjudicated, promising to act within 60 days once notified of an assault (currently, criminal investigations by police often delay college disciplinary proceedings). Formal probes of sexual misconduct would be conducted not by the Department of Safety and Security, as they are now, but by an external investigator specially trained in sexual assault. The evidence would be heard by a new panel that would include the director of the Judicial Affairs Office and others who would determine appropriate punishment.

Despite having spent more than $1 million over the past three years on initiatives to prevent sexual assault and high-risk drinking, and to improve a campus social climate dominated by fraternities, Dartmouth remains a dangerous and inhospitable place for young women, as reports of recent assaults make clear. The college shouldn’t delay in adopting more rigorous disciplinary procedures and tougher sanctions. Whether they would encourage more students to report assaults is difficult to say — indeed, they could have the unintended opposite effect — but at least would-be assailants would know that rape is an expellable offense as well as a heinous crime.