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Editorial: The scourge of campus rape

When the problem of bullying rose as a national topic two years ago, experts made clear that anyone with a social conscience who witnesses harassment has a moral duty to help stop it. Truth is, the bystander’s important work is never done.

As this week’s “Assaults in Academia” series in the Gazette establishes, people who are aware that someone may be in danger of sexual assault must speak up.

The crime of rape may happen in private, but it is a public scourge that needs more attention and more solutions. In the Valley, administrators at private colleges and the University of Massachusetts are working to improve how they respond to the needs of victims and respect their rights after such attacks. At Amherst College, these reforms began after President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin took office last year. Colleges are also being pressured by the federal government to take rape complaints seriously, investigate them fully and fairly and ensure dignity and safety for victims.

What took so long? The statistics on campus rape are horrifying today and have been for years.

One in four college-aged women report experiences that meet the legal definitions of rape or attempted rape, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. About 90 percent of campus rapes are committed by someone known to the victim — a classmate, friend, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend or other acquaintance.

Women in their first weeks of college are particularly at risk. As young people shift into a greater degree of independence, some put themselves in unsafe situations. Responsible schools work to educate students about precautions they should take to protect themselves even from people they know, such as moderating use of alcohol and being mindful that someone might slip drugs into a drink.

Everyone needs to understand that sexual relations without consent constitutes assault.

This fall, several victims of rape found the courage to write candid accounts about the sense of institutional inaction or disregard they felt after being raped on the Amherst College campus. A long essay by Angie Epifano ignited justified anger and is propelling change on that campus.

College leaders in the Valley must be sure memories of these accounts of injustice don’t fade, as classes depart and new students arrive.

Some think it strange colleges concern themselves with rape investigations at all, given that victims can — and we believe should — report all assaults to police. But federal law requires that colleges provide a hearing and disciplinary process. Colleges need to take this problem on because it is untenable for a victim to wait for justice through a slow-moving judicial system while living on the same campus as an assailant.

In campus hearings, schools can act on a preponderance of evidence, rather than the court system’s higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. That can speed justice for victims. At the same time, of course, it must be fair to all parties. A victim may feel justice has been served if her attacker is expelled from campus. A 2002 study of 120 admitted rapists found that 63 percent of the assailants were repeat offenders, committing 91 percent of the sexual assaults.

We believe it should be up to victims to decide whether to involve the police. But unless they do, the threat posed by a rapist could be moved elsewhere, putting others in jeopardy.

We see weekly in the town of Amherst the awful toll of binge drinking. The “Assaults in Academia” series revealed that alcohol consumption is usually a factor in campus rapes. Heavy drinking by college students, or by anyone, ruins lives. Not just the morning after, but for years and years to come.

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