Until recently, on hearing talk of “SVU”, your mind probably focused on an episode of TV’s Law and Order. Special Victims Units have been around for years of course, but until recently, they could be found only in the police departments of large and medium sized cities. Well, things have changed. And the latest convert to the formation of a specialized sexual assault team is none other than Arizona State University. ASU, which is the largest public university in the entire country, joins Michigan State, the University of Michigan and UConn as major universities that have launched SVU units in the past couple of years.
So what’s the impetus behind the new attention to sex crimes on college campuses? Some say it is a response to the requirements of The Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights, a federal statute also known as the Jeanne Clery Act. The law requires public and private universities and colleges to adhere to certain reporting and other requirements in connection with sexual assaults. Violations can result in fines, as well as the loss of the school’s eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs.
While the federal law may have made it appropriate to step up investigation of sexual assaults on campus, we question whether the passage of the Act was the real reason for this recent development. Our skepticism comes, at least in part, from the fact that the law was almost a quarter century old when the SVU at ASU came into existence. A more likely catalyst, we think, is the fact, which has only been publicized over the past year or so, that very few allegations of sexual assault on the ASU campus have resulted in criminal convictions. Indeed, an exposé published in the Arizona Republic disclosed that over a five-year period noted that there had been 65 allegations of sexual assault by fellow students at ASU. Forget about convictions – the story revealed that only 10 of the 65 alleged attackers had been expelled from school. Seventeen students were suspended for a period of time, and another ten were placed on disciplinary probation. The specific allegations against the students included forced sexual intercourse, attempted rape, and “groping.”
We understand that the mere allegation of sexual assault does not amount to a finding of guilt. That’s not the way the system works. We also understand that investigation of sexual assault cases are, to some extent, unique, in that there are usually no independent witnesses, and the alleged wrongdoer typically asserts that any sexual contact was consensual. But even “groping”, known legally as sexual abuse (sexual contact without consent), is a felony in Arizona. And it appears that some instances of sexual abuse have not been dealt with by the school in a manner that recognizes the seriousness of the offense, or the impact on the victim.
Hopefully, the formation of the SVU will have its intended effects, including more transparency in the handling of campus sexual assault cases.
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