EDITORIAL: University’s weak sexual-assault punishments can be disappointing

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 29, 2012

Our View: Sexual assault warrants a strong minimum punishment to ensure survivors receive the justice they want and deserve.

The Daily’s sexual-assault series has established that the criminal-justice system can cause serious stress for survivors without achieving results. And, while the university’s punishment system is more reliable at achieving justice, the punishments passed on to attackers can be disappointing.

So, should OU institute minimum punishments for those found guilty of sexual misconduct?

Minimum sentences in criminal justice are not always the best way to achieve justice. They may fail to fit the individual circumstances of every case.

And if these punishments are too harsh, they may keep survivors from reporting (especially in the more than half of cases in which the survivor knows the attacker, according to the Department of Justice).

They may even make juries — or hearing panels — less likely to find attackers guilty, even with good evidence.

However, the lack of minimum punishments at the university level leads to a dangerous situation. When confirmed attackers received light punishments, it seems as though they got away with the crime. OU fails to send a strong message that it does not tolerate sexual assault.

Such punishments do nothing to curb the rate of assaults on campus and even may encourage more assaults through the impression that attackers face no serious consequences.

This is a problem across the country. A study by The Center for Public Integrity showed universities across the country fail to assign serious punishments in the majority of confirmed sexual-assault cases.

At OU, the panel that hears student-on-student sexual-assault cases also decides the punishment in the case of a guilty finding.

Current discipline options

1) A verbal warning to cease the behavior.

2) A written warning that stays on the student’s disciplinary record for a certain amount of time.

3) Disciplinary probation for a set period of time, which can include exclusion from university-affiliated entities and activities, such as student organizations. If this probation is violated by further student code violations, more serious punishment may result.

4) Educational programs, such as community service, a reflective paper, a class or lecture on the subject, counseling sessions or other similar activities.

5) Payment of restitution for damages or loss of property.

6) An administrative fee to pay for mandatory educational programs or costs related to the policy that is violated, charged directly to the student’s Bursar account.

7) Assignment to a different university housing unit or exclusion from university housing.

8) An administrative trespass, which bars the student from part or all of campus except for during limited periods and for specific activities.

9) Suspension of the student for a specific period of time, after which the student will be able to enroll again.

10) Expulsion of the student from OU and all affiliated campuses indefinitely.

11) Restriction or denial of specific university services.

12) A delay in issuing a student’s degree for a specified period.

Of the 11 OU students found guilty of sexual assault since 2000, only six faced suspension or expulsion. Other punishments included no-contact orders and educational requirements. Simply requiring the student not to contact the person he or she attacked is not sufficient punishment for rape.

Despite the fact that the Justice Department encourages campuses benefiting from government grants to train its disciplinary panels to hand down “appropriate sanctions, such as expulsion.” At least 75 percent of disciplinary actions handed out by schools reporting to the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women were minor sanctions.

Though we think expulsion or suspension is the very least a confirmed rapist should face, we understand the negative consequences that could come from making such punishments the required minimum.

But a lesser form of minimum punishment would assure survivors and the OU community that OU takes sexual assault seriously. Particularly in cases of sexual misconduct that involve sexual activity — we exclude things like harassment not because they do not matter, but because they cover a broad range of situations that may be less serious than assault — a minimum punishment is justified.

The minimum punishment:

1) A year-long probation including exclusion from all university activities.

2) A semester-long suspension from OU.

3) A mandatory educational program about sexual assault.

4) Reparations paid to the victim for any hospital or counseling fees.

A repeat offense should result in automatic expulsion.

OU must take a firm stance on sexual assault in order to reduce the number of assaults and send a clear message that sexual assault is a serious crime. How can OU let attackers return to their normal lives — freely moving around campus, going to classes and having a social life — while the survivor likely cannot do the same.

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