POLL: Justice system should handle sexual assault on campuses

A new poll claims that 91 percent of likely voters want law enforcement and the justice system—not school officials—to handle allegations of sexual assault on college campuses.

The nationwide poll of 1,021 likely voters released Wednesday by the Fraternity and Sorority Action Fund (FSAF), a group that advocates for Greek life organizations, revealed overwhelming support for the notion that college students who are accused of sexual assault deserve the full due process protections afforded to those accused of committing any other crime.

After being told that many colleges do not allow accused students to review evidence or access counsel, for instance, 90 percent of those polled expressed support for guaranteeing those rights to students under university investigation. Similarly, 81 percent said the law should allow colleges to stop deciding cases on the basis of “preponderance of the evidence” in favor of the more-rigorous “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases.

Rather than trusting the matter to school administrators, though, 87 percent of respondents went a step further by saying that law enforcement should have an exclusive window to investigate allegations before schools are allowed to launch their own investigations.

“The survey shows that Americans of all ages and backgrounds agree on the need to reform the way we handle campus sexual assault," FSAF President Julie Burkhard said in a press release. “The current system does not serve the rights of students or the best interests of taxpayers who fund our nation's colleges and universities.”

The poll also found that 71 percent of likely voters believe that the federal government is not spending enough time on the issue of campus sexual assault, with another 42 percent saying that college administrators are not taking the problem seriously.

Yet Congress is already considering legislation that would address nearly all the concerns identified in the FSAF survey. The Safe Campus Act, introduced in July by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), would guarantee Miranda-style due process rights to students, allow schools to adopt higher standards of evidence, and create a 30-day window for law enforcement to investigate allegations before schools can become involved—all proposals that received at least 81 percent support in the poll.

“Policymakers are often unable to solve challenging problems because of the political dimensions of those problems,” observed Kevin O'Neill, Executive Director of the FSAF Action Fund. “This issue is different,” he claimed, pointing out that the poll “shows support across all party lines and demographics for the common sense solution of utilizing law enforcement as the primary path in solving any sexual assault on campus."

Overall, 77 percent of those surveyed said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the Safe Campus Act, giving much-needed ammunition to the bill’s backers in Congress just ahead of a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on Thursday at which experts debated the merits of the Safe Campus Act and legislative alternatives such as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.

Witnesses were divided in their opinions, with representatives of higher education interests arguing that schools should retain primary responsibility for investigating charges of sexual assault involving students, while legal experts countered that colleges lack both the expertise and the inclination to handle such grave accusations and encouraged leaving sexual assault investigations to the justice system.

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