Access to Justice for College Sex Abuse and Assault Victims

Posted in: Juvenile Law

Once in a while, a good idea catches on even if it is opposed by major interests. One of those is statute of limitations (SOL) reform, which the Catholic bishops, and even the chambers of commerce, have vigorously fought. Of course, I’ve been a proponent of eliminating the SOLs for child sex abuse victims for years. I suppose you could say at this point I sound like a broken record (if you are old enough to even know what that means!).

Here’s the thing: the logic is irrefutable. Our SOLs have been very short for victims of sex abuse and assault, and the vast majority have been shut out of court. That means as a society we have been barred from learning all that we need to know about the predatory dangers to our children. The only answer is to open the courthouse doors for these victims.

It turns out our college students need SOL reform as much as our children. We send our kids off to college with high hopes and some trepidation. They are so young, and college should be a time of exploring ideas, finding their mission in life, and meeting friends they never would have met otherwise. They are not just chronologically young, but as the science shows, their brains are still developing the capacity to make executive decisions until their mid-20s.

The tragedy is that there is an epidemic of sex assault on our college campuses. There is a nationwide epidemic of sexual abuse on college and university campuses. In a 2015 survey, 5.9% of female undergraduates and 22.4% of female graduate students reported sexual harassment by a member of the faculty. Among cases reported in the media, 10% of female students reported sexual harassment ranging from unwelcome sexual touching to forcible rape by a faculty member. Of these reports, 53% involved repeat offenses by the same faculty member, and the frequency of a single faculty member harassing multiple students increased with the severity of the incidents.

The federal law that makes universities (that accept federal funds) accountable for sexual assault and harassment is Title IX. This is a federal statute where the SOL is “borrowed” from the state where the university is located. For many states, a victim has a mere one or two years from the date of the assault. The trauma, humiliation, and embarrassment typically silence the victim longer than a few years, and so justice is denied, and the public is kept in the dark about the dangers on our campuses.

The college problem is not simply a matter of peer assaults, though that is a pervasive issue. We have been learning in recent years that university doctors also have been prolific perpetrators. With these disturbing reports that athletes and students in universities across the country have been victimized by physicians, we hope that the universities would be vigilant about hiring and overseeing safe doctors for the students. Institutions that hire perpetrators of sexual violence like Dr. Richard Strauss (Ohio State University), Dr. Larry Nassar (Michigan State University), Dr. George Tyndall (University of Southern California), Dr. Dennis Kelly (University of Southern California), Dr. James Mason Heaps (UCLA), and Dr. Robert Hadden (Columbia University) must be held accountable for letting sexual abuse continue unchecked. There are also the predatory doctors who prey on children but are part of university health systems, like Dr. Reginald Archibald (Rockefeller University).

Every university needs to start scrutinizing all of its doctors, because this is yet another vocation where a compulsive predator can thrive: there is a high volume of potential victims, with rapid turnover, and ample opportunities to be alone with the student.

These cases have garnered tremendous attention, leading to increased access to justice for some. To be honest, this is a development I would not have predicted, but there is now a trend toward “window” legislation for victims of specific university doctors. Michigan enacted a 90-day window last year for the victims of Dr. Larry Nassar. California just enacted a one-year window for the victims of doctors at private universities, which was triggered by the Tyndall allegations. Ohio is considering a bill that would revive the expired civil SOLs for victims of physicians at land grant universities in the wake of the Strauss/OSU revelations.

These bills are good, but in my view, they are leaving to the wayside too many other victims. In a perfect world, each state would enact comprehensive SOL reform for child and college victims, and we would dramatically increase our fund of knowledge so that we could effectively stop a wide range of perpetrators now and prevent it in the future.

It is time to nudge the federal government to act. What is the purpose of Title IX if the SOLs in the states are so short that most victims have no chance at justice, and therefore, the secrets that endanger entering college students stay hidden? It’s time for the federal government to take full responsibility for Title IX and set its own SOL; in other words, Congress should preempt the state SOLs by setting a federal SOL. Congress should eliminate the civil SOL going forward, and to catch up with all of the predators who have been operating under cover for so long, pass a window.

There is a choice here: protect the perpetrators and the institutions that cover for them, or take the action that proves we do love our college students. This is a simple but revolutionary change in the law that would send a message loud and clear to all campuses: you are accountable for the well-being of your students and athletes, and if you are complicit in a compulsive sexual offender’s attacks on your students, you might just have to pay up and improve your policies. Surely, that is not too much to ask.

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