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Danger on College Campuses

In recent weeks, there has been much focus in the media on sexual assaults on college campuses. This is by no stretch a new problem, but shining a spotlight on this issue has revealed that colleges' responses to these assaults often are mismanaged to say the least, which begs the question – who (other than the perpetrators) should be responsible for addressing sexual assaults that occur on campus?

At the University of Virginia, the answer apparently had been that such matters should be handled in-house….until recently, when an expose in Rolling Stone magazine revealed that UVA's response to victims alleging sexual assault was woefully inadequate. Although some have claimed that the details of the alleged rape at a UVA fraternity were not entirely accurate, the truth remains that at many colleges and universities, the administrative response to claims of rape and assault is insufficient.

Unfortunately, campus assaults are also a problem here in New Hampshire. A recent Boston Globe article discussed a survey of over 24 New England colleges that revealed a 40% increase in reported sexual assaults between 2012 and 2013. Whether that means more assaults are occurring, or more reporting, this unmistakably shows that safety on college campuses is an ongoing challenge, and schools' responses to these events need to improve.

After all, rape is a crime. Criminal matters should be handled by the police, not school tribunals or administrators. Schools have an incentive to keep these things “hush hush,” which often involves blaming the victim. Victims, who come to administrators expecting support, should not receive the message that it would be hard to prove sex wasn't consensual, or that they were somehow at fault due to clothing choices or drinking alcohol. Shifting the blame to the victim from where it rightfully belongs is shameful and only makes it harder for survivors to come forward.

One obvious solution is for colleges to immediately report such incidents to local law enforcement. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be consequences on campus – such as suspension or expulsion – but it does ensure that these incidents aren't swept under the rug, exposing other students to potential victimization in the future. Schools need to have sexual misconduct policies that are publicized and enforced, along with counseling programs and victim advocates. Colleges and universities have an important responsibility to their students to develop a safe and supportive environment where victims are supported, not ridiculed, and perpetrators are punished. The University of New Hampshire has been commended for its program, which encourages bystanders to get involved and discourage peers' behavior that could lead to trouble – an effort that recognizes that changing the culture is key to preventing these crimes.

If a college does not have proper policies and programs in place, or responds poorly to reported incidents, there may be recourse against the school for improperly addressing the issue. Also, if the assault occurred at a fraternity party, the national chapter of the fraternity may be liable depending on the laws of the state where the chapter is located. For example, fraternity liability is being litigated in Maine now in a case where a victim who was assaulted at a fraternity party alleges the national fraternity was negligent.

Although the outcome of cases like that is uncertain, what is certain is that assault victims have legal rights. There is emotional and legal support for you, and it may be possible to pursue a civil claim not only against an attacker, but potentially against the school and/or the organization as well. If you have experienced a situation like this, please contact one of our skilled attorneys. We can let you know what your options are and support you through the process of ensuring that you achieve justice and accountability.