Americans seem quick to anger these days, but sometimes anger is justified — and motivating. Take the outrage that has swept the country this week over the light sentence given a former Stanford University swimmer, Brock Allen Turner, after his conviction for raping an unconscious woman behind a campus dumpster after a fraternity party in January 2015.
Turner was sentenced June 2 to just six months in the Santa Clara County jail after his conviction on three felony counts of sexual violence, for which the prosecution sought a six-year prison sentence. The judge in the case — himself a Stanford alumnus — cited Turner’s lack of a criminal history and his character references, and concluded that the young, white athlete from a well-heeled Ohio family was unlikely to rape again. Critics protested what they deemed to be race- and class-based leniency; a recall campaign has been mounted against the judge.
Turner’s father tossed gasoline on the ensuing social media fire with a letter to the judge urging that the aspiring Olympic swimmer be spared incarceration. Dan Turner argued that his son was being asked to pay too steep a price for “20 minutes of action,” and he blamed excessive alcohol consumption for the incident.
The father’s obtuse disregard for the seriousness of his son’s crime stands in stark contrast to the victim’s eloquence at Turner’s sentencing hearing, which also went viral. The unnamed woman deserves much credit for sharing her story. Her riveting, 7,000-word statement describes the rape’s ongoing assault on her physical and psychological well-being. It should be read by any observer inclined to think that sex after campus parties — even when brutally coerced — is “no big deal,” that “boys will be boys” or that women who drink at fraternity parties are “asking for it.”
Those attitudes are not just dehumanizing and discriminatory. They are also significant contributors to the alarming prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses. A federal tally released this week found more than 100 U.S. schools at which 10 or more rapes were reported to authorities in 2014. Among them are elite “best and brightest” schools including Brown University (43), Dartmouth (42), Harvard (33) and Stanford (26).
Those are appalling numbers, but in part they are likely a consequence of an encouraging development: Campus sexual assault victims are increasingly likely to report what happened. They are speaking out and pressing charges. They are demanding justice from their colleges as well as from the criminal justice system.
And they are getting noticed in the right places. The 2015 Minnesota Legislature enacted a statute due to go into effect on Aug. 1 aimed at deterring sexual violence on Minnesota campuses, both public and private. It strengthened victims’ rights and offers victims amnesty from crimes they may have committed, such as underage drinking, in order to encourage reporting. It also requires that college staff members be trained in sexual assault prevention and response, and that training be offered to students as well. A first-of-its-kind conference Thursday and Friday at Metropolitan State University brought together some 300 campus administrators to become more familiar with the new law’s requirements and to share best practices.
The outrage Americans are voicing this week over the Turner case should give those administrators’ efforts new impetus and resolve. Through their anger, Americans are saying that a rape on campus after a drunken party is as much a crime as a rape in any other setting. Colleges and the courts should concur, and respond accordingly.