Rape is an enduring, if ugly, fact of life on college campuses. And, just like binge drinking and illegal drug use, its persistence is unlikely to be significantly curbed by any new state policy.
What can - and should - change, however, are the inconsistent and sometimes obstructive responses that the state's universities and colleges have historically taken to reports of rape among their student bodies.
That's starting to happen, thanks to pressure in recent months from students and activists. Last summer the Legislature began reviewing how California's public universities report sexual assault, how they deal with victims and perpetrators, and how they refer cases to law enforcement for prosecution. Results are expected this spring.
President Barack Obama convened a task force last month to explore ways to fight sexual abuse on college campus.
Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, introduced Senate Bill 967 earlier this week to establish rules for how California's public and private colleges deal with sexual assaults on campus. Its main difference from current practice is that responses must be "victim-centered."
That's not merely placatory language. As Denice Labertew of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault points out, this bill would fundamentally change the way many colleges deal with sexual assault. It would make it harder for perpetrators to brush assaults off as alcohol-fueled encounters and make it easier for victims to report sexual assault because their confidentiality would be protected. It also requires colleges to partner with community organizations for rape prevention and crisis services. And, significantly, it adopts in campus disciplinary cases the "affirmative consent standard," which means that "yes" only means "yes" if it is actually said out loud.
This bill was influenced by recent events at Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in de León's Los Angeles district. Last year, 37 students filed federal complaints accusing the school of underreporting and covering up the incidence of sexual assaults. Female Oxy students have complained about erratic or even abusive response from administrators to rape reports, a failure to let students know about rapes on and off campus and not adequately punishing sexual offenders.
Similar stories have been recounted by students with disappointing regularity across the state and the nation. More than a decade ago, an investigation by The Sacramento Bee found that University of California campuses had been avoiding federal law by underreporting crimes, specifically sexual assaults.
"Schools must be held accountable," de León said in an interview with the editorial board this week. "Sexual assaults can't be swept under the rug."
Ideally, it wouldn't take legislation to accomplish consistent rape response at higher ed institutions. But even in the second decade of the 21st century, college campuses haven't consistently been putting rape victims first. This should change.