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Colleges are scrambling under federal pressure to overhaul how they handle cases of sexual assault and as that's happening, the list of schools under investigation for botching such cases keeps growing. It's left some to wonder if campuses will ever be able to get it right or if they might be better off leaving the job to others. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some colleges are already making that shift.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's become pretty clear that schools are not exactly quick studies when it comes to handling cases of sexual assault so now a growing number of campuses are coming to see it as a no-brainer; rather than try to train their provosts and professors to act like prosecutors, they're outsourcing the job to real ones instead.
DJUNA PERKINS: The phone starts ringing, you know, the first day after Labor Day. I'm like - I sort of joke that I'm like, legal 911.
SMITH: Djuna Perkins is a former prosecutor-turned sexual assault investigator for hire. Her office, just outside Boston, is lined with college pennants from her growing list of clients.
You've got Amherst, Brandeis, Bentley, Harvard, Tufts, Williams, Emerson.
PERKINS: Yeah, a lot.
SMITH: So they've all decided they're calling in the professionals.
PERKINS: Yeah, I mean, many of the people that I work with at these colleges are stressed like you cannot believe. They would rather have somebody else do it besides them because they, at a certain point, might feel a little bit out of their element.
PERKINS: Oh, that might be one of my people.
Come on in. Hello.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, hello.
PERKINS: Come in, Karen. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good. How are you?
SMITH: Perkins has hired three more staff in the past year to keep up with the work.
PERKINS: So let's see so I know a couple of cases that we need to start getting report-ready.
SMITH: One is especially tricky - a male student was accused of sexually assaulting two women by a bystander. The two women don't want to talk so Perkins has to piece together what happened from surveillance video and other witnesses. She says she knows better than to read too much into an alleged victim's reluctance to talk. Experience has taught her these things are complicated. For example, Perkins says, take the case of a student who says she was raped but the guy says it was consensual and can prove that she asked him to wear a condom.
PERKINS: You know, some people might say well, that's consent there, right? But I don't necessarily think that's true because many of those reporting students would say, I just knew it was going to happen and so, you know, I don't want to get any STDs. So there may be explanations.
SMITH: In order to determine if there really was consent, Perkins must delicately press each of the students for the most minute details of the encounter.
PERKINS: They can be really tough calls but, you know, I just do the best I can to kind of parse it out as much as possible - well, when you did this particular thing was she making pleasurable moans? Was she lifting her pelvis to get clothes off?
You know, this all sort of goes into the mix.
SMITH: The job is not for the faint of heart. Behind Perkins' desk amid the law books and case binders are two Barbie dolls, one dressed in a gray tweed suit and pumps, the other and black fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots and a leather jacket.
PERKINS: I was like oh, my God, this is awesome, I'm getting the S and M one (laughter).
SMITH: You have to be able to laugh, Perkins says, in a job as intense as this. She's had several cases of S and M that was at least initially consensual and she says it takes a lot of experience and training to always remain fair and non-judgmental.
PERKINS: You know, 'cause my real reaction when students are talking about stuff like that, I'm like, oh, my God, these kids - what are they doing (laughter)?
SMITH: Hiring an outside professional like Perkins can also help colleges address questions of bias. George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf says schools who use their own staff to decide these cases will always be suspect. He says it's better, but only slightly, when cases are decided by outside investigators who are hired by schools. A better idea, Banzhaf says, would be to create a totally independent consortium of professionals to both investigate and judge cases.
JOHN BANZHAF: There can be no thought that favoritism is being given because somebody's an athlete or daddy's a big donor and the standards will be the same across the board. To me, it's a win-win-win for everybody.
SMITH: Or, Banzhaf suggests campus sexual assault could just be handled by the courts - either criminal or civil. He questions why schools are the ones investigating these crimes in the first place.
MEG BOSSONG: The shortest and most glib answer to that is because campuses have to.
SMITH: Both legally and morally, says Meg Bossong, director of Sexual Prevention and Response at Williams College. She says there are things survivors need that only campuses can offer.
BOSSONG: The assurance that, you know, you're never going to have to sit in a senior seminar, you're never going to find yourself living on the same floor and the criminal system is not designed to provide that.
SMITH: Schools complement the criminal system, Bossong says. Leora Joseph, a sex crimes prosecutor in Denver, agrees. She says it's important for campuses to punish misconduct that prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt or that might not rise to the level of a felony.
LEORA JOSEPH: Just because someone did not commit a crime, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be forced to suffer some consequences for their bad behavior.
SMITH: But, Joseph says, campuses and prosecutors can also get in each other's way. When students face criminal charges, they usually stop talking to their school investigators and when schools go first, Joseph says, it can really muck things up for prosecutors.
JOSEPH: You've lost the element of surprise. You may have lost forensic evidence and physical evidence and you can't un-ring a bell. That can forever damage law enforcement's ability to do their job.
SMITH: Joseph says better coordination is needed to keep the door open for criminal prosecution. Victims often change their minds, even after initially declining to press charges. It happened to this woman, who says she was raped just before graduation a year ago but wanted nothing to do with the criminal justice system after a forensic exam she found traumatizing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I just had my body like, turned into a crime scene is what it felt like. I was very overwhelmed with everything.
SMITH: This woman asked for anonymity to protect her privacy and NPR does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent. She did press her case on campus and the assailant was expelled, but when she found out he enrolled in another school, she decided she did want to take her case to court where a tougher punishment including jail would be an option.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's hard to go through all of that, but I don't want anyone to experience what I did and there's nothing stopping him from doing that to someone else.
SMITH: It's why the criminal justice system should be getting the same scrutiny as colleges are, she says. Victims need both options to work. There's a limit to what colleges can do, she says, no matter how great their new policies are.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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