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Duke protects rapists by choice not law

I asked Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta what the typical sanction was for students found responsible for rape. This answer may shock you: A common sanction applied is a one-year suspension.

I asked him if he was aware of any student having been expelled from Duke when found responsible for rape and he said, “not to my immediate recollection.”

In light of the very public allegations of rape against a candidate for Duke Student Government, there has been a lot of conversation about what the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires. The Chronicle and DSG approached the Office of Student Affairs, and both were told by administrators, including Moneta and Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, that FERPA did not allow them to release any information about Fedja Pavlovic’s disciplinary record.

FERPA makes it quite clear that universities may disclose “to any third party the final results of a disciplinary proceeding related to a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense if the student who is the alleged perpetrator is found to have violated the school’s rules.” After I pointed this out to Moneta on Monday, he consulted with other administrators and determined that it would remain the University’s policy; at least for now, Duke will not disclose which students had been found responsible for sexual misconduct, but Moneta said that changing that policy was an idea “worthy of conversation.” Moneta did confirm that if Fedja Pavlovic, or any other student, asked his office to make their disciplinary record public (presumably, to clear the air of accusations like those facing Pavlovic), that this request would be honored.

Right now, students who are found to be responsible for sexually assaulting another Duke student often face only a one-year suspension, during which they are free to pursue prestigious internships and do all the sorts of enriching things that students might choose to do during a voluntary leave of absence. When the sex offender comes back, he can tell everyone about his awesome internship, and nobody will be any wiser. The offender might pursue leadership positions. We know that the psychological consequences of being a rape victim are serious and long lasting—but a known rape perpetrator at Duke faces sanctions that barely, if at all, make that student worse off. A one-year suspension, put simply, is not a meaningful deterrent.

A one-year suspension for an act of absolute contempt for another human’s ability to decide what happens to his or her own body is not a reasonable punishment. It isn’t fair to the victims of rape, and it isn’t fair for all of the students put at risk when sex offenders return to campus.

In a 2002 study performed by David Lisak, 1,900 men at a midsize American university were asked in a written survey the following two questions: “Have you had sex with someone too intoxicated to resist? Have you ever engaged in sex by threatening or using physical force, such as holding down a partner’s arms?” You might be happy to know that the vast majority of men have never raped anyone, but the majority of men who had raped one individual had raped multiple. In fact, they had raped an average of six individuals.

The conversation our campus is having about sex offenders running for leadership positions on campus is worthwhile. But to me, we’re ignoring much more fundamental questions like: “Why on earth do we allow known sex offenders to return to campus in the first place?” and “If students have a right to know if the University found a potential elected official responsible for rape, wouldn’t a student also have a right to know if that guy who has asked her to his frat’s semi-formal has ever been found responsible for rape?”

Moneta pointed out to me that the Behavior Assessment Team is charged with monitoring both those who have returned from disciplinary leave and others flagged as potentially at risk for unsafe behavior, to monitor whether those students pose a continuing threat. This system is better than nothing, and it may even succeed at preventing a substantial number of unfortunate incidents, but I’m unconvinced it can routinely identify that a person is likely to commit assault before they commit it.

When I asked Moneta whether students found responsible for rape should ever be allowed to return to campus, Moneta called expulsion “Duke’s death penalty,” but did not rule out my suggestion. I get what he meant by the analogy—expulsion is Duke’s most serious disciplinary sanction—but this is a little like saying that getting a time-out is like capital punishment for toddlers. Yes, expulsion is serious and can have life-changing consequences, but having sex with someone against his or her will is a very serious thing, often with life-changing consequences for the victim. No one found responsible for rape should be allowed to return to campus. If we do continue to allow sex offenders to return to campus, the administration should not continue its policy of withholding the identities of rapists from the public.

Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Thursday. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.