Campus sex assaults stir debate on alerting students
San Francisco — When a student athlete at San Jose State University in California was accused of sexually assaulting two women at an off-campus party over Labor Day weekend, school officials acted decisively.
The student was ordered to stay away from the women involved and was moved from his dorm into a staff housing facility. He was also temporarily suspended from campus and team events pending the result of an investigation.
University officials also acted quietly, prompting many students to ask why they were kept in the dark about the alleged assaults. Fueling the criticism, the suspect — identified as an international student — left the country as authorities investigated.
The case has renewed focus on the problem of sexual assaults involving college students and raises questions about what obligations a university has to inform students and when it’s time to go public about an alleged assault.
University officials and legal experts say it’s a delicate issue. On one hand, students have an interest in knowing immediately if a perpetrator is on their campus. But schools also need to protect students’ privacy before an arrest is made or charges filed.
One proposed solution is for schools to notify students of suspected assaults in police-blotter style, without divulging details that could identify suspects or victims.
San Jose campus president Mary Papazian addressed student concerns in an email sent Monday to the university’s 35,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff.
“I am determined to do everything possible to ensure that SJSU is a safe, caring, inclusive community,” she said. “We will look comprehensively at how to improve communication.”
The school has said the male student was immediately interviewed by police and school officials. Since no arrests have been made and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office is still reviewing the case for possible charges, the school felt there was no imminent safety threat to the campus community.
Still, given the student concerns, the university will review the way it responds in sexual assault cases.
“I believe it is time to re-examine and consider changes to notification policies,” Papazian said.
The case follows the high-profile trial of former Stanford University athlete Brock Turner, who was convicted of attacking a woman while she was passed out near a trash bin on campus in January 2015. Turner’s six-month prison sentence sparked national outrage and ignited a debate about campus rape and the criminal justice system.
The California State University system, which includes San Jose State and 22 other campuses, has no systemwide policy on notifying the campus community about alleged assaults.
But the schools adhere to the federal Clery Act, which requires universities to issue “timely warnings” of situations seen as a threat to the campus, said Toni Molle, spokeswoman for the California State University system. The decision of when to issue warnings is up to each campus.
The Stanford case did not become public until Turner was charged, said Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who favors some public disclosure early on after assaults are reported.
“As long as student privacy is protected, schools should err on the side of greater transparency and issue the timely warnings,” said Dauber, a friend of the woman Turner assaulted who has been outspoken against the judge’s sentencing.
Families Advocating for Campus Equality, which works on behalf of students accused of assault, says it’s important not to name names prematurely.
“I think it’s OK for a campus to notify in the abstract. Take more precautions, say there’s been a report,” said Cynthia Garrett, a co-president at the group. “But to put somebody’s name and face out there, you need to be pretty sure something has happened. Imagine if you’re innocent. Just imagine, how that could ruin a life.”
Most universities will wait until there is a clear public safety issue to sound an alarm.
But publicizing an assault could lead more victims to step forward, says Fatima Goss Graves, an attorney at the Washington D.C.-based national Women’s Law Center.
In San Jose, one of the women came forward immediately, and the second woman waited two weeks.