Duke’s statute of limitations for sexual misconduct violations, reduced last January from two years to one, continues to vex many on campus. After investigating the policy change, a task force assembled by Duke Student Government has drafted a well-reasoned proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations entirely, citing conduct policies of other universities and the unique trauma associated with reporting sexual assault.
When we examined this issue last year, we emphasized the need to strike a balance between protecting victims and ensuring the rights of the accused. We maintain this position, and we support the DSG proposal and condemn the Office of Student Conduct for failing to communicate effectively about a policy that has profound effects on students’ lives.
In the past, administrators have cited the need to match recommendations issued by the Department of Education. The recommendations stipulate that statute of limitations for reporting sexual harassment and assault must be the same for both students and employees, which means one year at Duke.
The DSG proposal, which amends only the reporting policy for students, would make it easier for the University to remove perpetrators of sexual assault from campus, even if several years have passed since an incident. Given the psychological and social barriers that prevent immediate reporting of sexual assault, an extended or eliminated statute of limitations is necessary to ensure that victims can both report when ready and avoid confronting their attackers on campus. Because the goal of Duke’s sexual misconduct policy is not to prosecute the accused in a criminal court—where the punishment would be more severe—but to remove him or her from campus, lower standards of evidence and longer reporting windows are justifiable.
The DSG proposal stipulates that victims can report as long as the alleged perpetrator is still affiliated with the University, meaning that the statute would effectively be four years maximum. Because any other reporting window would create an arbitrary cutoff date, the task force has adopted the most logical policy.
Moreover, University administrators remain unable to adequately defend the current one-year statute of limitations. In a message to DSG, Ben Reese, vice president for institutional equity, said he was unable to provide the specific details that may have been the impetus for the change in the statute of limitations. Reese has shrewdly avoided citing the statistic that only 4 percent of victims report after one year. But Reese’s failure to justify the current policy still hints at its arbitrariness.
Although we support the new proposal, Duke should continue to consider the rights of the accused when evaluating its sexual misconduct policy. The risk of admitting corrupted evidence in sexual assault cases increases over time. If the University elects to eliminate the statute of limitations, it should ensure that the adjudication process meets the highest standard of fairness. The current process, involving outside investigators and several rounds of adjudication, seems just and thorough, but the Office of Student Conduct must be equipped to deal with the complications of older and less reliable evidence.
In short, we applaud DSG for crafting a thoughtful proposal, and hope that the Office of Student Conduct will stop prevaricating and extend further protections to victims of sexual assault.