THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Rape and responsibility

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

In the midst of a heated debate on the campus of Buena Vista University about the campus policy on response to sexual assaults, comes a troubling report from Iowa State University.

There, a 19-year-old journalism student has admitted making up a story about being raped. She had told police that she was kidnapped at gunpoint by four black men, taken to a wooded area and raped. Now, she says she made the whole thing up.

Such cases are not unfamiliar to Storm Lake. We recall one not so long ago in which a reported attempted sexual assault was blamed on a Hispanic assailant who, it turned out, did not exist.

As troubling as it is that such incidents would be made up, it should be equally troubling that minorities seem to be the ready target for such fakes. Do they feel that police and the community will more readily accept a story with blacks or Latinos as the heavy?

At BVU, the debate isn't racial, but legal and ethical. Some students demand a change in policy because they feel the current one unfairly removes an accused student from campus before they have a chance to make their case in court - "guilty until proven innocent." Others protest their protest, saying that taking the teeth out of the campus policy will send a message that may prevent women who are sexually harassed or assaulted from coming forward in the future.

At Iowa State, some students are saying that they are now worried that wary officials won't believe them now when women do come forward with sexual abuse reports. The university's acting safety director assures that no matter how many false reports are heard, all future reports of abuse to women will continue to be taken at face value.

So it must be too at Buena Vista. It would be tragic if a student were falsely accused and separated from their education for an extended time. But it would be even more tragic if the university took no real action in the case of a sexual assault report, and another innocent person were to fall victim because of it.

We have to assume that reports are honest, even if we get burned doing so once in a while. The role of our universities is to provide a safe learning environment for our young people - not to decide guilt or innocence. It has to do what it has to do to maintain that safety, even if it means protesters on the steps of the president's office.

There will be much more heard on the issue as BVU reviews its policy. It ISU, a young woman could face up to a year in jail for her false report.

None of it excuses us from doing the right thing.