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Readers respond: Who should adjudicate cases of sexual assault on college campuses?

When two college students have drunken sex that leaves them both regretful — and experiencing the lasting consequences — who should investigate if the encounter later leads to allegations of sexual assault?

On the nation’s college campuses, it is often school administrators, investigators and lawyers who are responsible for a task that is sometimes nearly impossible: determining who, if anyone, is at fault.

In many cases, physical evidence is lacking and memories are blurred by alcohol or drugs. Sometimes victims don’t want to participate in an investigation, and witnesses can be hard to identify, if there are any at all.

Some sexual assault prevention advocates have urged law enforcement officers to take a lead role in investigating such cases, though others worry that pushing the cases into the legal system can deter victims from coming forward.

A Washington Post investigation published this week explored one case at the University of Virginia that showed the frustrations students, parents and administrators face as they address the messy intersection of alcohol and sex. [He said it was consensual. She said she blacked out. U-Va. had to decide: Was it assault?]

The Post asked readers to respond to this question: “From your personal experiences, do you believe colleges are properly equipped to adjudicate sexual assault cases or should it be left to the justice system?”

Hundreds of readers responded, including many current U-Va. students and U-Va. alumni. Read a selection of the responses below; some have been edited for length and clarity:

“As a both a U-Va. graduate and current student, the issue of campus sexual assault is one that weighs heavily on me. I think that colleges could be capable of adjudicating sexual assault cases properly in the future, since they are able to give school-related sanctions that would be unavailable in the criminal justice system and that could be more appropriate. However, I am convinced that colleges right now are not properly equipped to handle these cases. When I receive an email alert that the Charlottesville police have been made aware of a sexual assault, I think, ‘Good, someone will investigate this.’ When I receive an alert that the university has been made aware of a sexual assault, I think, ‘What a shame that the survivor is unlikely to get justice.'” — 25 years old, Charlottesville

“Personally, as a rising third year at U-Va., I think at this point we need to hand sexual assault cases over to the justice system. I’m sick of the furious outcry every time someone isn’t convicted, like the university is allowed to just expel people for being accused. I think the culture surrounding college campuses create an impossible climate for accused people to be given due process. I further don’t see how it’s fair for the university to have a system for trial that creates serious consequences for those convicted that’s different from our country’s system. Some cases at U-Va. go on for an eternity, and I don’t doubt that in many of those cases the accused doesn’t really know what’s going on with regards to the status of the investigation, or even of what he’s being accused. The university administration, especially after the scrutiny following the Rolling Stone article, feels obligated to create a culture of ‘safety’ at the expense of a fair process, and I don’t really blame them for conforming to the ideas of the people who keep them up and running. But, as a 19-year-old myself, I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t have 19-year-olds dictating how the justice system works.” — 19 years old, Charlottesville

“As a sophomore at an Ivy League college, I was sexually assaulted by a drunk athlete at a campus snack bar at closing time, in public. Finding the assault deeply disgusting and distressing, I reported it to a dean, telling her I just wanted him to have a sit-down and be warned never to do such a thing again. Instead, she referred my accusation to the school judicial process, which was a in many ways worse than the initial assault. My then-fiancé, now-husband, went into law partly because of my experience, and has prosecuted countless sexual assaults since. As a mother of six daughters now, I tell them there is no way to guarantee they will never be victims of sexual assault, but simply keeping their wits about them will reduce their chances by 99%. That is what colleges should focus on, and leave the prosecutions to professionals.” — 40 years old, Northern Virginia

“I am a student at U-Va. … I think U-Va. is more than equipped to handle cases of sexual assault. They have made students aware of their resources. Should someone need help after a sexual assault, they know where to find it if they go to U-Va. Almost any professor would be more than willing to offer unbiased assistance in finding help.” — 19 years old, Clifton, Va.

“Given the need of the justice system to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, I’m unconvinced it is an ‘either or’ proposition. The justice system should be given an opportunity to investigate and prosecute any case it deems warranted. However, there are opportunities for alternative resolutions, including restorative justice, that are possible in a collegiate system which may work better for both parties. If colleges really want to reduce the incidence of alcohol-fueled rape, they need to address with greater vigor abuse of alcohol.” — 64 years old, Augusta, Maine

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