Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, suicide, self-harm, PTSD
WSN reported today that Brandon Olsen, then a freshman at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, raped fellow freshman Ashley Sweeney off-campus in September 2013. Sweeney attempted suicide twice in the aftermath of the assault before filing charges with local police in February 2014. NYU found Olsen guilty of non-consensual sexual intercourse, in violation of NYU’s Sexual Misconduct Policy in March 2014. In spite of the severity of Olsen’s crime, NYU is permitting him to return to campus for the Spring 2015 semester, provided he receives counseling to “address whatever issues may have contributed to, or precipitated, his behavioral choices, complete community service and not communicate with Sweeney.” His punishments were a mere suspension for the remainder of the Spring and Fall 2014 semesters and an idle ban from university housing.
By trivially penalizing Olsen for a crime of this magnitude, NYU demonstrates its inability to seriously address sexual assault. The university’s shameful adjudication is an insult to Sweeney and the trauma she and other survivors of rape have endured. This case demonstrates that NYU is complicit in the disturbing nationwide trend of treating rape as a minor offense rather than a full-fledged felony. If NYU intends to address rape with the severity it deserves, the university must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for future cases.
It is clear that the NYU administration is only nominally interested in prosecuting sexual violence, one that believes there are shades of grey when it comes to rape. The current attitude is discouragingly pervasive and undeniably toxic. Rapists should receive the harshest university response possible and be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Thomas Grace, NYU director of the Office of Community Standards, said the process for determining how to punish perpetrators depends on the exact circumstances of the incident. There is no set policy for how the university should deal with rape cases going forward.
The university examined cases “roughly akin” to Sweeney’s within the past three years, and “found that suspension and expulsion were equally common outcomes.” The difference between the outcomes was attributed to the “unique circumstances of each incident.” This case-by-case method is an excellent standard when considering evidence in disciplinary hearings, but it has no place in determining punishment once guilt has been found. Rape is rape. The recent changes to NYU’s sexual assault policy required by Title IX has positively redefined consent, yet they have not significantly altered punishments, which is needed for heinous crimes such as rape.
The lack of transparency in the university’s handling of sexual misconduct cases is extremely troubling. NYU’s failure to provide statistics on hearings regarding sexual misconduct is inexcusable and indicates its refusal to take full accountability for its response to such cases.
NYU should not have given Olsen a petty suspension and housing banishment — he should have been expelled. If NYU is unable or unwilling to sufficiently determine an appropriate punishment, this type of case should be ceded to the police. This punishment should not apply solely to Olsen, but to all rapists enrolled in college. Approaching rape with a dismissive and forgiving attitude indicates a tolerance for a crime that threatens campus health and public safety. Acceptance of sexual assault to any degree is an affront to decency and justice.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]