Can colleges handle sexual assault cases fairly?

Over the past few years, colleges and universities across the country have overhauled their sexual misconduct policies in response to complaints from students and women's advocates and under pressure from U.S. Department of Education officials, who have issued new guidelines and launched investigations into dozens of schools. That's a good thing, generally speaking, because many schools had long ignored or mishandled students' allegations of sexual assault — in some cases belittling those students or unfairly doubting their claims. But in revamping their procedures, some schools have set up campus tribunals that curtail the basic rights of the accused.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joel M. Pressman said as much when he ruled last week that a UC San Diego panel in 2014 was unfair to a student accused of sexual assault because he was not allowed to have all of his questions asked at his hearing and could not physically face his accuser. The panel found that the student, identified only as John Doe, had engaged in nonconsensual sexual activity with another student, identified only as Jane Roe. He was suspended for one school year and a quarter. Pressman ordered the university to set aside its findings and the sanctions.

Schools traditionally hold student conduct hearings to rule on a variety of alleged transgressions such as plagiarism, cheating and sexual assault. The UC San Diego panel appears to have broken none of the school's rules for procedure. But the judge was correct that those rules were insufficient to protect the rights of the accused. The accused (like the accuser) was allowed a lawyer, but the lawyer was not permitted to participate in the proceeding beyond advising the client. Both parties were present, but the accuser sat in the hearing room behind a screen, to avoid any additional trauma. The judge rightly found that separation unnecessary.

Hearings like this one are not criminal proceedings, and they cannot result in prison sentences or other criminal sanctions. But fundamental due process rights should apply even in quasi-judicial settings. Most sexual assault victims don't lie, of course — and they should certainly be treated with respect and sensitivity — but the rights of the accused cannot be sacrificed to make their accusers feel comfortable. The accused deserve a full and fair opportunity to cross-examine, ask questions, challenge statements and look into the eyes of their accusers.

Ideally, victims of sexual assault should report those crimes to police and let the judicial system vigorously prosecute alleged perpetrators. That can be a difficult step for a victim, although increasingly schools — including UC San Diego — have support systems in place to help. Meanwhile, if schools are going to remain in the business of handling allegations of sexual assault, they must be sure victims are treated with respect, that complaints are taken seriously and pursued vigorously, and that the basic rights of the accused are not abridged.

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