For the past few years, increased attention has focused on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. The statistics are horrifying. The federal government has established new regulations to guide colleges in effectively preventing and responding to sexual assault.

One frequently debated issue is whether colleges should have their own judicial proceedings regarding sexual assault, or whether sexual assaults should only be adjudicated through the criminal justice system.

As an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I believe that having a campus reporting option available to students is important and serves as a strong addition to the option of a criminal justice report.

Not all adults who are sexually assaulted report the crime to the police. While there are many reasons for not reporting, for college students the decision may be more complex. If they live elsewhere, reporting the crime ties them to a criminal justice process in the college community that may take a year or more to resolve and could require them to return for some proceedings during times that they might not otherwise be on campus. And, during the time they are on campus, the survivor could be in proximity to the person who assaulted them, possibly running into them regularly in the course of their daily campus life.

Colleges obviously cannot do a criminal adjudication on sexual assault or any other behavior that is against the law. That is the purview of our criminal justice system. It is the responsibility of colleges, however, to determine if a student has violated the school’s established code of conduct.

In the case of an alleged sexual assault, the college would determine if the accused student violated the code of conduct which prohibits sexual assault. If the determination is yes, the college can impose sanctions on that student, including expulsion from the college. Because of the seriousness of the charge and the possible penalties, colleges have an obligation to implement systems that are informed, objective and fair to all involved.

Colleges have come a long way in the strategies employed to investigate these assaults. Many colleges used to have a student conduct board made up of various combinations of faculty, staff and students. Colleges typically provided training to those boards to understand and evaluate the different issues they might see during the year, but these boards were often made up of people who had familiarity or relationships with the accuser or the accused (potentially causing bias) and/or who were not fully prepared to evaluate the complex issues they would review.

Many colleges have now changed their approach when addressing charges of sexual assault. Many employ an independent investigator who has special training in assessing these cases and who has no bias toward the case. The investigators present their findings and their recommendations to some sort of hearing board within the college. While accusers and the accused would be interviewed by the investigator, they may not ever have to testify before the hearing board. This process has ensured more effective, specialized assessment, less chance for bias, and less trauma for the people involved.

The benefit for sexual assault victims can be enormous.

First, they can choose to report the crime to the police AND report the assault through the campus system, giving them twice the options of a sexual assault survivor living in the community.

When a sexual assault survivor reports the assault through their college, they can often arrange for accommodations such as being excused from classes for a period of time or measures taken to ensure the safety and protection of the survivor. The campus response process generally happens more quickly than the criminal justice process, giving the survivor a more timely resolution. And, if the accused is found to have violated the student conduct code and is expelled from the college due to the seriousness of the violation, the sexual assault survivor is able to proceed with their college career without fear of that person influencing their experience.

Our local colleges welcome our college advocate onto their campuses to provide support and guidance to sexual assault survivors. The advocate can help sexual assault survivors to understand the options they have for reporting the assault to law enforcement and on their campus, and provide support for them through either or both of those processes.

Sexual assault is a horrendous experience wherever it happens. An effective college response system should not take the place of a criminal justice adjudication, but provide another, additional recourse for survivors.

Marty McIntyre is executive director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Responses Services, serving Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

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