Over the course of four days last week, members of the Yale community received two emails from Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins reporting alleged instances of sexual assault on campus. The messages were surprising not only for their quick succession but also for their content — until last week, Higgins’s reports this year had largely consisted of muggings, robberies and occasional reports of gunshots.
Federal law in the Clery Act mandates that universities receiving government funding report all crime that occurs on or near campus. Yet sexual assaults on campus are not usually handled by the YPD because victims have a number of avenues by which they may file their complaints. At Yale, victims of sexual misconduct can bring their complaint to four primary resources: the YPD, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Title IX coordinators or the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center.
According to the University’s latest Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct — which spanned from Jan. 1 to June 30 of last year — of 64 total complaints of sexual misconduct, 25 were handled by the UWC, either through formal or informal complaints. An additional 25 were pursued through Title IX coordinators, and the remaining 14 were handled by the YPD.
But as the federal government has focused attention on stopping sexual assault on college campuses, a debate has emerged about the proper avenues for handling such cases — whether they should be heard by internal University bodies, or if they would be better left to the police.
Hannah McCormick ’17, a board member and facilitator for Yale’s Sexual Literacy Forum, said the fact that last week’s cases were reported to the police may have been triggered by campus disillusionment with University processes. She cited the negative publicity surrounding sexual harassment charges at the medical school — where a professor was accused and found guilty of sexually harassing a colleague — as one possible cause of this shift.
“Yale has created a lot of distrust within the community about being able to handle these situations tactfully, with poise and efficiently,” McCormick said. “I feel like a lot of people are feeling like, ‘Yeah, maybe they’re teaching us about consent, but when it comes down to the bottom line, I don’t know if they have my back.’ They may see going to the police as a more attractive option.”
Higgins did not return a request for comment. Deputy Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner, who oversees the YPD, declined to comment.
“The circumstances of each complaint and the needs of each complainant are unique,” said Deputy Provost and University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler. “Therefore it is not possible, in the abstract, to identify one venue that is preferable to another.”
But McCormick also acknowledged that reporting sexual assault, regardless of the venue through which it is reported, can be challenging to victims.
“It’s very difficult for survivors to even report because it’s putting the autonomy for them to receive justice or a resolution in another person’s or committee’s hands,” she said.
The prospect of being “discussed and judged by a committee” was exactly what deterred one survivor of alleged sexual assault from reporting their case, either to the UWC or to the police. The survivor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the emotional drain of filing a complaint and revisiting the details of the incident, day after day, would have prevented them from focusing on recovery.
The obstacles to reporting sexual assault are widely acknowledged. On SHARE’s website, the instructions for filing a complaint are introduced by a statement that criminal or disciplinary hearings can be difficult and that there are no guarantees about outcome. In a November 2014 editorial in The New York Times, Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld wrote that police and prosecutors often do not know how to sensitively handle sexual assault cases.
“The UWC process offers confidentiality, a lower standard of proof, and often, by comparison to the police, a more sympathetic response,” Rubenfeld said in an email. “It’s very hard for a person to go by herself to a police station to report a sexual assault, especially given the relatively low conviction rates in such cases.”
But, he added, college adjudication processes often do not offer strict enough punishments to deter future offenders. In addition, he said, such processes are often unreliable and do not provide the accused with much due process.
Regardless of which procedure is used to address sexual violence, Rubenfeld said, the rates of prosecution remain too low. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report last December, 80 percent of campus sexual assaults go unreported to police. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates the number to be 95 percent.
“That low a reporting rate guarantees that the overwhelming majority of sexual assailants will never be apprehended or punished by the criminal justice system,” Rubenfeld said. “And that means that there will be much less deterrence of rape than there should be.”