A few weeks back, I mentioned that a former student of mine had been hurt by an abusive boyfriend. The campus judicial hearing was last week. In it, the accuser had to face trial herself.
Here’s the problem: Underage drinking laws and the equivalent campus rules deter victims of violent crime from reporting. As I learned at the eleventh hour, after I’d already written my character reference and shown up for the hearing, my student also faced multiple charges against her! One of them was underage drinking. After the original incident, she’d been frank with the investigators and told them she’d had two beers much earlier in the day. This was used against her, with no corroborating evidence.
Her alcohol charge stuck; apparently the panel felt it had to interpret university rules very narrowly. However, her punishment was extremely mild compared to the norm. She still doesn’t know for certain that he was found guilty, but the panel wouldn’t have been merciful if they hadn’t believed her version of events. (We also don’t yet know what will happen in the regular courts; that process seems to be stalled.)
My student’s problem is typical, I’m afraid. When dating violence and sexual assault occur on campus, alcohol is often part of the picture. Lots of assaults – sexual and otherwise – go unreported because the victims are afraid they’ll be punished for underage drinking. While this is a particularly pervasive problem on campus, it also potentially affects all women and girls who are underage.
May student is not a major-league partier, but she’s also not a teetotaler, and so these countercharges were used to intimidate her. (Her ex has done other things to intimidate her as well, but listing them might divulge identifying details, which I don’t want to do.) If she’d initially known that she faced possible suspension, she might have chosen not to press the case. She couldn’t have known in advance that the panel would impose the mildest penalty possible.
Why can’t we just have a blanket amnesty in the alcohol laws that would allow underage victims of violent crimes – male and female alike – to report those crimes without fear of repercussions? The university could easily enough change its policy. It has a great opportunity to do this, since it’s currently revising the sexual assault provisions of the student code of conduct (but any such change should apply to all violent crimes). It’d be harder to change state laws. But allowing people to report violence without fear of reprisals for drinking would obviously serve the cause of justice. It should help prevent violence, too, since potential perps would be aware that their targets would face one less deterrent against reporting.
One more thing: I spent my whole day at Judiciaries waiting around, and about five to ten minutes saying my piece. I could only take that much time because I didn’t have any teaching commitments that day. I don’t know how much it helped, if at all, to have a faculty member stand up for my student. Her family thought it was useful, and surely they felt better, knowing someone cared. But if the judicial process is going to be so time-consuming, faculty and staff will typically be boxed out of it, even if they might be able to add a valuable perspective. This, too, harms innocent students disproportionately.