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NOT ALONE: Improving Campus Sexual Assault Investigations

By May 8, 2014September 25th, 2023No Comments

The April 2014 release of “NOT ALONE The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault” recommends colleges and universities seek answers to the question of how campus sexual assault investigations should be handled and who should conduct the investigations.

The Report suggests that schools consider using a “single investigator” model to improve campus sexual assault investigations [1]. This single innovation could – if properly implemented with experienced investigators – substantially improve the investigation of campus sexual assaults in ways that would enhance justice for victim and accused alike.

Why are colleges and universities being investigated? Colleges are a microcosm of our larger communities and the reform of sexual assault investigations and prosecutions has been ongoing for decades in the criminal justice system. Advocates for campus sexual assault victims rightly perceive college students as a particularly vulnerable population and have focused on the poor training and inconsistent practices at most colleges and universities. Litigation complaining of Title IX violations has been filed against numerous schools, the essence of which is that attending school in an environment where women may be assaulted fundamentally interferes with their education.

Why should colleges and universities be worried? Because sexual assault investigations don’t get any easier just because they occur on a college campus. Sexual assault investigations and prosecutions are among the most difficult cases to conduct and it is no surprise that weaknesses appear in the processes being used by the schools to handle campus sexual assault complaints.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have relied upon hearing boards staffed by students, faculty, and administrators to conduct campus sexual assault investigations. This reflects the schools’ notions that campus sexual assaults should be handled internally as a student conduct matter. This system is fraught with defects — the most obvious one being that sexual assaults are among the most complex and difficult of crimes to investigate. Despite their best intentions, students, faculty and administrators simply cannot devote the years of training and experience necessary to handle sexual assault cases with the investigatory rigor required.

As the recent slew of Title IX lawsuits shows, these systems don’t work. For example, recent complaints have cited hearing board members being unfamiliar with the different types of sexual assault and thus questioning whether certain kinds of sexual assault are even possible [2]. Columbia University complaint). Such lack of knowledge subjects the victim to needless and  emotionally stressful questioning that is irrelevant to the material evidence in the case. And the problem runs both ways with bad investigations producing false findings of guilt just as easily as false exonerations.

As the White House Report suggests, colleges and universities need to think about “who should gather the evidence,” and, “who should make the determination of whether a sexual assault occurred,” [3]. One innovative version of the “single investigator” model would be to outsource campus sexual assault investigations to outside professionals with experience investigating, prosecuting, and adjudicating sexual assault cases.

Such a system would minimize the perceived conflict of interest that colleges and universities have in investigating allegations that – if found justified – will negatively affect their image and thus their appeal to potential students. Such a system would also ensure that campus sexual assault investigations are conducted by well-trained professionals.

[1] “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.” The White House, Apr. 2014. Web.

[2] PÉrez-peÑa, Richard, and Kate Taylor. “Fight Against Sexual Assaults Holds Colleges to Account.” The New York Times, 03 May 2014. Web. 03 May 2014.

[3] “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault.” The White House, Apr. 2014. Web.

Shan Wu

Author Shan Wu

Shan’s professional and personal background gives him a unique understanding of academic institutions and the criminal justice system. A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he is at home in D.C. Courts and very familiar with all of the Washington, D.C. law enforcement agencies, especially the Metropolitan Police Department. His parents were university professors so he grew up in a university environment. He understands the mindset of academic institutions. As a prosecutor, he supervised in the misdemeanor crime section. This is the section of the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office that handles most college student cases. His understanding of charging decisions and how judges view these cases is invaluable to his student clients and their families. Shan served as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for over ten years. During his tenure there, now Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appointed him to supervisory positions in the Misdemeanor Trial Section and also in a police corruption task force. His outstanding legal work in the government was recognized through numerous Special Achievement Awards from the Justice Department as well as awards conveyed by law enforcement agencies and community groups. From 1999-2000, Shan served as Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her on criminal and civil investigations, E-Gov, E-Commerce (electronic signatures, internet gambling, internet telephony, privacy & public access issues in electronic court filings), congressional oversight, and legislative review. His responsibilities included serving as liaison to the FBI, DEA, Criminal Division, Executive Office of United States Attorneys, National Institute of Justice, and White House Counsel’s Office. Shan serves on the D.C. Bar Association’s Hearing Committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility and is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, D.C. area. He is a 1988 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated Order of the Barristers, edited two law reviews, and was Co-Director of the Moot Court Program. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College as well as a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Following law school, he clerked for the late Hon. Jerry Buchmeyer, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and the late Eugene Wright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Connecticut.

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