Following years of criticism from victims of sexual assault, the University of Virginia moved this week to improve its methods for addressing rape on campus. The school addressed victim concerns only after the U.S. Department of Education chimed in—last month, its Office of Civil Rights released new guidelines [PDF] to "remind" schools how to comply with Title IX in their adjudication of sexual assault claims. Among the rules: Schools "must use the preponderance of the evidence standard to resolve complaints of sex discrimination"—meaning that a university must take action against an accused rapist if it's more likely than not that the assault occurred.
On college campuses, rape claims are subjected to a much lower burden of proof than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" required in criminal trials. That's because university tribunals don't hold the power to strip convicted rapists of their freedom—all they can do is bar them from attending one school out of thousands.
Of course, colleges can't indiscriminately ban men from campus based on unsubstantiated sexual assault claims—but they also can't deny women equal access to education by refusing to take their assault claims seriously. Under the Title IX guidelines, campus accusers and accused stand on fairly equal footing: Victims are required to prove to administrators that their version of events is the more likely one.
Most Washington area schools currently conform to the "preponderance of evidence" standard in their codes of conduct, including The George Washington University, the Catholic University of America, Gallaudet University, the University of the District of Columbia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, American University, Georgetown University, and Howard University. But Security On Campus Director of Public Policy S. Daniel Carter says that "not a tiny number" of U.S. colleges and universities still hold victims of sexual assault to an unreasonably high burden of proof.
Among them: the University of Maryland. According to the UMD code of student conduct, most recently amended in March, "the burden of proof shall be upon the complainant, who must establish the guilt of the respondent by clear and convincing evidence." That "clear and convincing" standard lies somewhere between a preponderance of evidence and that shadow of the doubt—and the U.S. government has decided that enforcing that burden effectively discriminates against women in education.
Let's take a look at how a standard like that that plays out on a campus of 27,000 undergrads. Last month, student journalists at UMD discovered that only four students had been disciplined for sexual assaults at the school in the past decade. The Department of Justice estimates that five percent of college women experience an attempted or completed rape on campus each year (a smaller percentage of college men will also become assault victims while at school). That means that approximately 675 women at the University of Maryland will experience sexual assault in any given year—and not even one student is held responsible for those crimes.
Lowering the burden of proof for sexual assault claims won't bring justice to all UMD rape victims. But for the ones persistent enough to bring their claim in front of the university, it would at least put the school's men and women on equal ground.