Lessons on Sexual Assault from Across the Pond

On September 30, a 16-year-old girl was raped from behind in her high school bathroom in Western France. Because it was dark, the girl was unable to identify her attacker, but a genetic profile was extracted from her clothes. When authorities were unable to find a match in the national database, they decided to do something drastic: they ordered DNA tests on all 527 male students and staff who were present on the closed campus that day. Anyone who refused the test would be placed under police surveillance. Prosecutors received consent from parents and promised that the DNA of all minors would be destroyed once the investigation was completed.

The testing, which took place over the span of three days last week, had the full support of the director of the school, Chantal Devaux, who told the French media that “we didn’t have a choice, it was felt to be the only way to find the guilty person and we have to find the guilty person.” Jean-François Fountaine, the mayor of La Rochelle, where the rape occurred, told RTL that he was “trying to put a more positive view of things: If you do this, you clear yourself. There are hundreds of people today who will be cleared.”

Students, too, were supportive of the tests. One student told the newspaper Sud-Ouest that everyone “supports the young girl who was raped and that we all want to find the one responsible.” In the end, only one person refused the test.

As an American college student, I was shocked to read about this online. Over the last few years, there has been widespread national media coverage of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States. Survivors are often dissuaded from going to the police, as most universities prefer to keep investigations internal. The universities’ investigative processes, however, appear to be seriously flawed. Universities across the country, including Columbia, Berkeley, and Amherst, have been accused of seriously mishandling sexual assault cases. Student groups have raised awareness of lax policies that often allow assaulters to go unpunished and provide victims with little, if any, support. The survivor’s stories are harrowing. They tell of cases dragged on for months, denied appeals, bogged-down bureaucracies and unsympathetic administrators.

This issue, once confined to isolated college campuses, has gone all the way to the Washington. Through the “White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault,” the White House released guidelines for universities on how they should handle sexual assault cases. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) have asked for increased funding to enforce and investigate sexual assault on college campuses. And while it’s certainly progress that the problem of sexual assault has come into the purview of authority, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Just this week, 23 students at Columbia filed federal complaints against the university, alleging violations of Title IX, Title II, and the Clery Act, all involving the mishandling of sexual assault cases and mistreatment of victims. The press release lists a number of violations, accusing the university for, among other things, discouraging survivors from formally reporting and permitting serial offenders to remain on campus.

So when the French authorities decided to throw all their resources and support behind this 16-year old girl, it stood out in stark contrast with the thousands of sexual assault victims in the United States whose cases have been bungled.

I do not think American universities should go out and take DNA samples from every student. The fourth amendment all but guarantees that this would never happen. Eighty-five percent of all campus sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers, which means that, for the most part, such large-scale investigations are unnecessary.

Instead we should be taking note of the partnership between the school and the police, and their shared, unwavering commitment to justice for the survivor.

This is not the first such “DNA dragnet” conducted. French authorities have done 3 previously, and Britain and Australia have done one each.

According to the United States Department of Education, 20 percent of women and seven percent of men will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault during their college years. According to a study conducted by the Department of Justice, fewer than five percent of attempted or completed rapes are reported on college campuses.

Every single one of those survivors deserves equal and thorough treatment. They deserve the steadfast dedication and support of those tasked with their protection. They deserve respect, and they deserve justice. The 16-year old survivor in La Rochelle had the backing of the government, the police, her school administration, and her peers — a thorough network of support rarely seen in the United States. Why can’t every case of sexual assault be treated with this amount of care?

So to the American authorities and universities, I say this: protecting your citizens and students is your job. Take a look across the Atlantic. At least they are protecting the survivors instead of insulating the ones responsible.

Isabel Rothberg is LJP’s social media manager. She lives in New York City. The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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