A limited success
Duke should remove the statute of limitations for both student- and employee-reported sexual assault cases
A noteworthy story in higher education occurred at Duke University Sunday when the administration announced, after protests dating back to January, that it would remove the statute of limitations in its sexual assault policy for students alone. A statute of limitations establishes a time frame in which a case can be filed after the occurrence of an incident. This laudable move catches Duke up to standards set at other institutions, including our University, but students there should continue to advocate that the statute be rescinded for employees as well.
The laws in many states — including North Carolina and Virginia — put no statute of limitations on felony crimes such as rape. The University, like many schools, follows the state’s lead and imposes no time constraint for the reporting of sexual assault. Prior to January, Duke applied a two-year statute of limitations for sexual assault cases reported by students and a one-year statute for cases reported by employees.
In January, however, the Duke administration changed its policy to accord with what it thought was required. The Department of Education had sent a nationwide letter to institutions in April 2011 asking for improvements to sexual assault policies. Duke originally interpreted the letter to mean that it would have to calibrate the two-year statute of limitations required of students with the one year allowed for employees, according to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper.
Duke had rectified the disparity by making the statute of limitations one year, for anyone reporting a sexual assault case — though as Inside Higher Ed reports, it could have achieved the same consistency by making the statute two years uniformly.
The groundswell of opposition to this new, one-year statute reached its apogee Sunday when Duke officials decided to revoke the statute of limitations for students altogether. The Duke administration made this conclusion after a renewed interpretation of the Department of Education’s letter, finding that its previous equilibrium between students and employees’ sexual assault policies was unnecessary. Removing the statute of limitations rightly gives students who suffer from sexual abuse — who from injuries or contingent circumstances may be unable or unwilling to file a complaint within just a year — more time to come forward. But the policy alteration was not applied to employees, who are left with the one-year statute.
The main justification for having a statute of limitations is that it streamlines the judiciary process. Besides gaining efficiency by requiring cases to be reported more quickly, a statute enables charges to be brought up early enough before evidence is dated and witnesses forgetful. Without a statute, critics say, there would be more allegations that are unclear because of the passage of time. But if anyone, it is Duke that should know that a false allegation of sexual assault can just as easily happen within a statute, as it did for Duke lacrosse players in 2006.
The policy change at Duke should be celebrated as a victory for the Duke Student Government which spearheaded the campaign and passed resolutions. Victims of sexual assault — students or employees — should retain the right to make an accusation when they are comfortable. Questions about crime should deal with guilt and innocence rather than convenience and timeliness — the defendant’s right to a speedy trial should occur only after a prosecutor has time to accuse him. Thus students at Duke should not cease protesting with just a victory of one step forward while its employees remain a step back.