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Bernie Sanders thinks police should investigate campus rape. That's not enough.

Sanders's response on campus sexual assault disappointed activists.
Sanders's response on campus sexual assault disappointed activists.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Last night, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked at a presidential forum about sexual assault on campus. His response was that it should be a matter for the police: "It is a crime, and it has to be treated as a serious crime."

Sanders was probably trying to signal that he takes concerns about sexual assault seriously. But it also shows that he doesn't understand why colleges are handling sexual assaults in the first place.

Colleges don't handle sexual assault cases because they're trying to avoid bad publicity. They do so because they're legally required to. And in trying to explain why they shouldn't, Sanders ended up using the same argument that advocates do to explain why involving colleges is crucial.

Sanders: "It has got to get outside the school and have a police investigation"

The question and answer start at the 30:24 mark in the video.

The moderators at the Black & Brown Democratic Presidential Forum in Iowa asked Sanders if it was the responsibility of public institutions to combat the sexual assault epidemic. Here's what he said in response:

Absolutely it is, and you're right, it is an epidemic. And here's what I think has to happen. Rape and assault is rape or assault whether it takes place on a campus or on a dark street. And if a student rapes a fellow student, that has got to be understood to be a very serious crime. It has got to get outside of the school and have a police investigation. And that has got to take place.

Too many schools now are saying, well, this is a student issue, let's deal with it. I disagree with that. It is a crime, and it has to be treated as a serious crime. And you are seeing now the real horror of many women who have been assaulted or raped sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them. Rape is a very, very serious crime. It has to be prosecuted, and it has to be dealt with.

But colleges aren't investigating sexual assaults in order to sweep them under the rug. They're required to do so by Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal educational opportunity to men and women. That includes freedom from sexual harassment and assault. And it means that on campus, a rape isn't just a crime — it's also a civil rights violation.

Colleges have to investigate and take action when a student is assaulted, or when they're aware that sexual assault is taking place on campus, even if students don't report it.

This doesn't mean sexual assaults should be handled by colleges alone. A campus sexual assault bill that Sanders has co-sponsored in the Senate would make it easier for colleges and the criminal justice system to cooperate by requiring them to share information.

But a police investigation, an arrest, and even a trial don't let colleges off the hook on their own responsibilities. They're still required to investigate reports of assault and mitigate the fallout, to ensure that sexual violence doesn't interfere with students' ability to get an education.

Victims want colleges to be involved

Sign celebrating Title IX
Title IX is best known for its effect on women's sports, but it's also a powerful weapon against sexual harassment and assault.
David Sherman/NBA via Getty Images

When Sanders explained why he thinks the police should handle sexual assaults, he also hit on why many people think the legal system can't do enough: "You are seeing now the real horror of many women who have been assaulted or raped sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them."

This is why advocates argue that colleges have an important role to play. The criminal justice system can't rearrange a college student's schedule so she doesn't have to sit next to her rapist. But colleges can. They can also shuffle housing assignments and provide counseling.

They might need to do those things even if a case goes to trial, because the justice system moves slowly.

But the justice system often doesn't deliver justice for victims of sexual assault on campus. Cases of acquaintance rape, which make up many of total sexual assaults, are notoriously difficult to prosecute: Physical evidence is often scant, and the case can often hinge on the victim's word against her assailant's.

A Chicago Tribune investigation of 171 reported campus sex crimes between 2005 and 2011 found only 12 ended with arrests, and just one student accused of attacking another student was convicted.

Colleges can use a lower standard of proof than criminal courts: A student can be found guilty if it's more likely than not that he committed the assault. He doesn't need to be considered guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

That's led to valid concern that campus courts can too easily rush to judgment, suspending and expelling innocent young men.

But when people say that police, not colleges, should handle sexual assaults, they should keep in mind that many victims of sexual assault know campus justice is the only justice they're likely to get.

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