Pilot Editorial

Monday, April 15, 2002

Answers in assault not black and white

The outcome of a sexual assault case on the Buena Vista University campus is unlikely to satisfy either side of a debate on the BVU policy for treatment of rape suspects.

One of those last-moment plea bargains avoids what was bound to be a lurid trial later this month, and probably avoids some difficult publicity for the college.

But it doesn't answer the questions in this case, or give either side a definitive argument as they seek to reexamine the university's proper response to such allegations.

A rather large demonstration on the steps of the president's office several months ago shows that the issue is important to students and staff, well beyond gender lines.

At issue is whether the university should expel a student accused of a sexual assault. Many backed the male student in this case and his right to continue his normal life, while others demanded a tough policy to make a university statement against abuse.

So what happens when the sexual assault turns out to be something unclearly defined?

Prosecutors plea bargained the third degree sexual assault charges down to a misdemeanor charge of assault causing injury in the case of the 20-year-old male student, in exchange for his guilty plea. The penalty is a modest fine, a suspended sentence, probation, and a promise to attend dating and relationship counseling.

It would have been a difficult trial. The freshman woman involved had fallen asleep, did not remember having sex, and reportedly had to seek a doctor's help to determine if the sexual contact had even happened.

It is crucial to note that both in terms of societal norms and the law, drinking does not excuse taking sexual advantage; and a condition in which a woman is unable to fend off unwanted advances is the same as saying "no." Date rape, as far as we are concerned, is still just rape.

But what do you do when the alleged victim simply can't remember? When a defendant claims that sex was had in an alert, consentual way, and there is no independent witness to prove who was right?

The plea bargain brings a difficult time for the university and the students involved to an end, although it may not be so emotionally easy for the woman to close the chapter in her life.

The court outcome doesn't answer much. If it were truly a consentual relationship between partners, how can it rightly end with the man still admitting to assault and injury against the woman?

It would have been a difficult trial, and it's equally difficult to draw conclusions from this to help form a university policy.

It has to have teeth. Families entrust universities to protect their children. It also has to recognize, like it or not, that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. It has to reflect that sexual assault cases are not always black and white, but sometimes in confusing and frightening shades of gray.

Our gut feeling is that protection is job one - for the victim and the accused. With that said, we would support a BVU policy barring sexual assault suspects from campus pending the outcome of their case, and also one expelling a student found to file an untrue allegation against another member of the community.

In this particular case, there is little good to be found in the months of emotional turmoil involved.

All we can do is hope that the young people involved are able to put the trauma behind them, that perhaps others learn a lesson to avoid sexual situations while either partner is under the influence or unable to make a clear decision, and that the students and staff currently working toward policies on rape and alcohol abuse on campus are able to make wise and reasonable choices.

A sexual assault case on campus is a harsh reality to live with. But to have such a situation repeat itself for a lack of awareness would truly be a rape - of the innocence of the entire community.