Collegian Editorial: The way our court systems and universities handle sexual assault is unacceptable

The Collegian

Collegian article published Monday details the story of Ali, a Colorado State University student who survived a sexual assault and went through court and the University to prosecute her attacker.

This editorial board believes that the way Ali’s case was handled by the District Attorney’s office is unacceptable and that the way it was handled by CSU could have been much better. We think changes need to be made in our court systems and colleges to better handle sexual assault.

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How the District Attorney’s office mishandled this case

When Ali first reported her assault, she was told that the D.A.’s office would not be picking up her case, despite a confession of the attacker through a recorded phone call. Months later, Ali was told the case would in fact be picked up, with no explanation as to the change.

Throughout the process, Ali was handed between members of the D.A.’s office, requiring her to tell her story and re-live her trauma over and over again.

The D.A.’s office was planning on getting a plea bargain together, which would be presented at a disposition in court for the attacker to either plead guilty and take the plea bargain, or plead innocent and go to court.

The first two dispositions were re-scheduled by a couple of months. The D.A.’s office explained that the first one was postponed due to the perpetrator not being able to make it, but did not have records for why the second one was postponed.

In the third disposition, a different D.A. than the one who had been handling Ali’s case was present. He tried to present a plea for one year unsupervised probation, but the judge said that this did not match the facts of the case. Ali said this D.A. had not even read her file before presenting the case.

Two more dispositions were re-scheduled after that. The D.A.’s office did not have records to explain why. 

Finally, three dispositions later (a total of six), a plea bargain was put together and Ali’s attacker pled guilty, receiving two years of sexual assault and alcohol probation.

Ali’s situation is not uncommon. Many survivors go through similarly lengthy and difficult court processes simply to ensure their attackers receive some sort of supervision or consequences.

This entire process is extremely flawed. Surviving an assault is already incredibly traumatizing, and we cannot imagine how awful it must be to re-live that over and over again in court. So, for the D.A.’s office to allow the case to be postponed this many times and last this long is not acceptable.

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We understand that sexual assault cases are difficult to prosecute. Often, there is a lack of evidence and it is difficult to prove a sexual assault beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the D.A.’s office needs to be able to get a plea together within a reasonable amount of time and needs to not allow this many dispositions to be postponed, because the fact is that during this process, an attacker is on the streets with no supervision.

Fort Collins has recently become an “It’s On Us” community and continually advocates for survivors to come forward. However, how are they expected to come forward when the process will simply re-traumatize them over and over, only to end up with their attacker facing a plea bargain that is essentially just a slap on the wrist? 

We now may understand why so many victims of sexual assault don’t come forward. Why would they? The process is emotionally taxing, prevents healing and is invalidating. Why go through this when your attacker will simply be supervised for a couple of years?

Let’s face it: Our courts have no idea how to handle cases of sexual assault.

How Colorado State University could have handled the case better

Ali also reported her assault to Student Conduct Services. The office found Ali’s attacker guilty of assault within 60 days, which we applaud. At the time that he was found guilty, he was graduating. CSU required the perpetrator to go to therapy and withheld his diploma until he did so. CSU also told the attacker not to return to campus until after Ali had graduated.

Though we understand that the attacker was graduating, we feel that CSU could have done more after finding him guilty and should do more in general when students are found guilty of assaulting other students.

At the very least, we feel that perpetrators should go through extensive education, in addition to therapy, on sexual assault before being allowed to graduate. If the resources for this education are not in place, let’s put them in place. What student would mind paying a couple of dollars a semester to educate sexual assault perpetrators on consent and how not to assault people?

Sexual assault is the responsibility of the person who committed it, and them alone. Let’s put the resources in place to make them responsible for their actions, and face consequences for them.

Students are expelled for much less than sexual assault. They are regularly suspended and expelled for issues with alcohol and drug use. Is our University telling us that alcohol violations are worse than sexually assaulting someone? We hope not.

These cases may be hard to try. These cases may be difficult to handle. But, we simply cannot allow them to be swept under the rug.

It’s well beyond time that our court systems and our universities learned how to handle cases of sexual assault.

The Collegian Editorial Board can be reached at editor@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.