Colleges should let authorities handle sexual assault cases

COLLEGES AND universities are not equipped to investigate violent crimes against their students, on or off campus. That lesson seems to have been lost on Emerson College, where a group of students recently filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education alleging that the school downplayed two sexual assaults.

For years, colleges routinely covered up crimes on campus for fear of driving away prospective students. That situation finally changed in 1990, when Congress passed the Clery Act. It requires any college taking part in federal financial aid programs to collect, classify, and document crimes that take place on or near campus.

On the surface, Emerson appears to be complying with the law. Its annual crime report is easily available. Last year, the college reported three “forcible sex offenses’’ on campus. It even has gone to some lengths to establish a “culture of consent,’’ in which students are encouraged to reach a mutually understood agreement before engaging in sexual behavior.


But programs alone do not create a safe environment for students. There are many disturbing allegations in this case, beginning with one female student’s claim that she was raped last year by an MIT student and sexually assaulted by an Emerson student at an off-campus fraternity party. What is more startling is the student's allegation that she was advised at one point by a college official to pursue the matter through the school’s judicial process, instead of continuing to work on the case with the Cambridge Police. The student said she took that advice, only to be sexually assaulted a second time during the internal investigation. Meanwhile, Emerson’s president has told students, “We can and we will do better,” but has declined to say what, if anything, went wrong in its handling of the case.

Sexual assault cases are among the hardest crimes to investigate in all of law enforcement. Clearance rates are low because, often, there are no witnesses, memories are impaired by intoxicants, or victims are reluctant to testify. But if anyone is going to resolve such cases, it will be the police and district attorney offices, not college officials. Administrators at Emerson and other schools shouldn’t overestimate their own ability to handle sexual assault cases — and should never discourage cooperation with police.