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What Letting MSU’s Basketball Players Off the Hook for Sexual Assault Tells Us About Campus Rape

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Students at the University of Oregon used this campaign of posting red flags on the campus' public space to represent the fact that one in four women experience some kind of sexual assault during her college career.

CREDIT: Flickr / Wolfram Burner

Two Michigan State University basketball players accused of sexually assaulting a young woman in their dorm are off the hook, according to a report released by the Michigan Messenger.

Many elements of the case are typical of campus acquaintance rape scenarios. The accused are college athletes and the assault allegedly occurred after a night of drinking and casual socializing:

The victim told police the players penetrated her in various positions. The victim told detectives the players allegedly asked her “how does that feel?” and “how do you want it?” The victim says she told the players she didn’t want it and gave “other indicators she was not a willing participant.”

The victim told police that the players pinned her down, but at one point she freed her arms momentarily and struck one of the players in the face. The player was on top of her and in response to her hitting him, he allegedly said, “Don’t. Just relax. C’mon,” as he continued to assault her, the report says.

But what sets this particular case apart from others is that one of the accused players actually corroborates the victim’s statement, admitting to authorities that he knew the young woman was unwilling:

During his interview with detectives, the one player who volunteered a statement corroborated much of the victim’s statement, the report shows. He told investigators that when it was clear from the victim’s statements that she did not want to have sex, he stopped. However, the other player continued “despite her reluctance and statements that she did not want to continue.” The victim confirms that player’s account.

The player told detectives he was concerned “over the girl’s reaction to the circumstances,” noting she was “timid” and “not aggressive.” The player then admitted to detectives that he understood how the woman believed she was not welcome to leave the room, in part because she kept referencing that the two were “bigger” than her.

Given the player’s affirmation of the victim’s statement, the case against the men should have been a “slam dunk.” Accordingly, the MSU Police Department wasted no time sending their report to the prosecutor’s office, with the recommendation that both men be charged with Criminal Sexual Conduct 1, the severest level of sexual assault under Michigan law.

But the assigned prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings, has declined to press charges against the athletes, saying that the prosecutor’s office is not convinced that force or coercion occurred in this case (a judgment directly contradicted by the police report), and that victim herself chose not to press charges (a claim denied by the victim).

Dunning’s decision, while reprehensible, shouldn’t be surprising. An investigation of sexual assault on campuses conducted last year by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found that prosecutions of campus acquaintance rapes are miniscule. Because most acquaintance rapes are perpetrated when the attacker, the victim, or both are inebriated renders, such cases are often tricky to adjudicate and become “he said, she said” disputes.

And when prosecutors turn down these cases, the only available recourse for many victims is to seek justice through their university’s disciplinary system.

Unfortunately, most colleges are ill-equipped to investigate and resolve sexual assault cases and are moreover unwilling to impose harsh sanctions on perpetrators.

A 2001 report [PDF] commissioned by the Department of Justice found a number of inherent problems with university policies and practices regarding sexual assault, including a tendency to “unintentionally condone victim-blaming” and failure to follow due process procedures. In addition, only 38 percent of schools require sexual assault sensitivity training for campus law enforcement while only 37 percent fully comply with federal regulations about reporting crimes.

The CPI investigation similarly found that, even when college administrators find a student guilty of sexual assault, they are reluctant to expel the perpetrator:

Verdicts are educational, not punitive, opportunities. […] Not every sexual offense deserves the harshest penalty, [administrators] argue; not every culpable student is a hardened criminal.

So, while a man who rapes off-campus could face years in jail for his crime, a man who rapes on-campus is unlikely to even be expelled. In too many cases, student rapists face mere suspension or potentially even lighter sanctions than that.

The tendency among administrators to view sexual assault as “teachable moments” flies in the face of evidence that student rapists are often serial rapists—guilty of victimizing an average of six women during their college career.

The decision to absolve student rapists of their crimes can be costly, as doing so could violate Title IX—a federal civil rights law that bars sex discrimination in publicly funded educational programs. In recent years, the ACLU has won two landmark lawsuits against public universities guilty of letting rapists off the hook. In 2008, Arizona State University paid out $850,000 after it failed to expel an athlete with a history of harassment who later raped a young woman. And in 2007, the University of Colorado paid out $2.5 million after its football team sexually assaulted two women.

Whether Michigan State University will take action against the basketball players accused of rape remains to be seen. The prospects don’t look good. While the university reported 32 forcible sex offenses on its campus between 2006 and 2008, it reported no disciplinary actions associated with those crimes.

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