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On campus, a fresh urgency to probe sexual assaults

RECENT CAMPUS rape scandals have exposed the ambiguous relationship between colleges and criminal justice. In some cases, criminal accusations are downplayed or treated like disciplinary matters; in others, students face life-destroying accusations without due process. In a recent national survey of 440 four-year colleges and universities, 41 percent have not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years, despite numerous reported incidents. Clearly, there needs to be some fundamental standards.

Into this ad hoc judicial zone stepped Harvard University, which last month announced a revamped policy on sexual assaults on campus. It’s not perfect, but it’s a big leap forward.

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One of Harvard’s most significant changes is the creation of a centralized office to review accusations. That alone puts Harvard at the vanguard of serious reform. Harvard has also assigned staff experienced in sexual assault allegations — rather than academic administrators — in charge of the investigations. In a more controversial move, Harvard adopted a “preponderance of evidence” standard — a lower standard of proof than that required by criminal courts but one recommended by the US Department of Education.

One can expect that many other colleges and universities will join Harvard in revising their approaches to sexual assault, if last month’s first-ever summit hosted by Dartmouth College is any indication. The summit was attended by hundreds of campus officials from across the country. The higher ed system seems to be in the early stages of what experts have called “the professionalization of investigative practices” regarding confusing and complex accusations.

As students across the country prepare to go back to campus this fall, higher education institutions need to recognize that reforming the protocols on sexual assault cases is vital. Otherwise, justice in this dark corner of campus life will go unaddressed.

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