Last week, the Office of the Judicial Administrator heard its 11th case of sexual assault this academic year, setting the record for the most cases of sexual assault ever referred to the J.A. in one year. According to the University, this figure is likely not due to an uptick in crime, but an increase in reporting. This is a promising sign that the University is taking this issue seriously. We hope that Cornell continues striving to increase reporting of sexual assault, as well as working to prevent these crimes before they happen.
Sexual assault is not only highly prevalent on college campuses nationwide, but also largely unreported and unpunished. A U.S. Department of Justice study found that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college careers. After these assaults take place, many of the victims remain silent. According the USDJ, only 40 percent of victims who have been sexually assaulted report the incident to authorities. These assaults lead many victims to transfer or drop out of college while the attackers go unpunished and on to graduate, according to reporting by NPR.
To tackle these discouraging statistics across college campuses, Cornell, in conjunction with several student groups, has worked to educate students about the process for reporting sexual assault, attempting to reduce the perception that the process is intimidating. These efforts aim to increase the rate at which these crimes are reported. Additionally, programs spearheaded on campus include those that help bystanders intervene when they see the potential for sexual assault. We hope to see these programs expanded and continued.
While the University both strives to increase the percentage of sexual assaults that are reported and works to lower the amount of sexual assaults that occur, it has also made it easier for victims to win cases in the campus judicial process by lowering the standard of proof for finding an accused student guilty of sexual assault. In the past, victims have had to provide evidence that shows that the accused committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But now the accused can be convicted with only a “preponderance of the evidence,” a lower standard of proof.
The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter requiring college campuses receiving federal funding to lower the burden of proof for sexual assault cases. This prompted Cornell to change its policy, fearing the consequences if it did not comply. When the Codes and Judicial Committee, charged with reviewing changes to the Campus Code of Conduct, approved a lower standard of proof for sexual assaults, it did so hesitantly, noting that it would have preferred to keep the higher standard. This lower burden of proof, while helping some victims get justice, may also have the negative consequence of falsely convicting some accused students.
With this new policy, the benefits that come with punishing legitimate perpetrators may come with the increased risk of false conviction, especially when evidence for these types of crimes is largely based on “he said, she said” testimony. Instead of focusing the debate on arguments about the standard of proof for sexual assault in the Campus Code of Conduct, Cornell, as well as the federal government, should shift the focus toward preventing these crimes from occurring in the first place and increasing the amount of reporting when they do occur, both of which bring fewer risks than changing the burden of proof.
Despite Cornell’s efforts, there is still a significant amount to be done to resolve this issue. These 11 cases that have been heard at Cornell likely represent only a portion of the sexual assaults that have actually occurred, and the efforts on the part of the University to both increase the amount of reporting that occurs, as well as prevent the assaults before they happen, are of critical importance to making Cornell a safer and more welcoming place.