Three SMU student journalists at the Daily Campus have taken issue with the university’s policy of handling sexual assault cases internally.
In Monday’s 1,500-word story, titled “Sweeping rape under the rug,” Patricia Boh, Brooks Igo, and Natalie Posgate reported that the university uses internal disciplinary hearings to handle cases where SMU students are the suspected perpetrators of sexual assaults. The university refused to release any information about these hearings, which the journalists dubbed “secret panels.”
“Over the past 25 years, more than 100 SMU students reported they were sexually assaulted. Yet, in only one case — the three men who raped Monika Korra in 2009 — were the suspects successfully prosecuted,” the student journalists wrote. “They were not SMU students. For every suspect who is, SMU relies on a system of secret hearings using rules not found in any courtroom, and the maximum penalty is expulsion.”
(The Dallas County District Attorney’s office successfully prosecuted the three rapists of Monika Korra, a cross country runner from Norway who has discussed her case openly with the media. Erin Hendricks, the lead prosecutor in that case who now works in private practice, slammed SMU for how it handles cases internally: “I don’t think there should be a carte blanche for a man or a woman to commit a violation of the state’s laws on campus and therefore have one free pass,” she told the Daily Campus. “Why are we going to short-circuit the process and avoid consequences for a person who has potentially committed such a serious crime?”)
The piece cites how panels treated two cases—from 1990 and 2006—as examples of how the panels failed to provide “fair and impartial” hearings for students.
SMU maintains that the internal disciplinary panels “work well,” while denying the journalists’ requests for statistics on the outcome of cases. “It’s very effective,” SMU Police Chief Richard Shafer said. “It has helped people heal.”
After the story went to press, SMU spokesman Kent Best fired back at the Daily Campus in a statement:
It is misleading to characterize SMU’s student judicial process as “secretive.” SMU’s student conduct process involves confidential student education records, which are subject to federal privacy laws. SMU will work with a student victim to file a case with the Dallas County District Attorney’s office on any sexual assault accusation, but it is the victim who must decide whether to proceed with that step toward prosecution. Unfortunately, very few victims make that choice. In recent years, two student victims have agreed to proceed with prosecution, but in both of those instances, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office rejected the cases. SMU works diligently to support its students who have been victims of criminal acts and will continue to encourage victims to file criminal charges with the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, which ultimately determines whether a case progresses to prosecution.
How colleges handle rape cases has long been a thorny issue. Schools have a legal obligation under Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, to investigate rapes involving students. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent a nineteen-page letter of legal guidance to schools on how these cases should be handled.