OPINION: Student victims should consider reporting to local law enforcement

In the wake of the class-action lawsuit settlement between USC and student survivors of former campus gynecologist George Tyndall’s alleged sexual misconduct, it is critical that University administration continue to provide support to all sexual assault victims and raise awareness of campus resources. 

However, students should also be aware of resources beyond those offered by the University. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are criminal offenses, and students can report these incidents to local law enforcement. Students should take initiative and report crimes to local law enforcement, if they do not believe that the University is doing enough to support them.

Sexual assault is one of the most prevalent crimes on college campuses. College-aged women are twice as likely to be assaulted as they are robbed. Among undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males will experience sexual assault or abuse, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. 

Many survivors choose not to report to law enforcement for a variety of reasons. For example, victims believe that sexual crimes are a personal matter or that their assault or harassment was not important enough to report. But as evident in allegations against USC doctors, it may take up to 26 years for the University to take action. And USC did so quietly — reports and complaints made in 1990 regarding Tyndall’s abuses remained unaddressed until after his official departure in 2017.

Victims are less likely to report sexual incidents to local law enforcement because of the legal consequences a report on public record will cause their alleged assailant. However, reporting to local law enforcement can break cycles of sexual abuse. Eight out of 10 rapes and similar crimes are perpetrated by someone who the victim knows, such as a friend or a romantic partner. This often makes coming forward a challenge. When a victim reports a sexual crime to local law enforcement, they have several immediate opportunities to heighten their protection, if the perpetrator is taken into custody or the victim files a restraining order. When they report a sexual crime to the University, such protections are often not available.

Victims also are ensured specific rights when they report sexual crimes to law enforcement officials rather than to the University. In California, survivors are protected by the Victims’ Bill of Rights. These rights grant survivors numerous protections, including not being required to participate in the criminal justice system following their report and not needing to provide medical evidence to receive protections. The bill also requires that the victim has the right to request that a member of their same gender be present during any interview with a law enforcement official or district attorney. Victims are also granted access, with financial coverage by the state, to any contraceptive measures taken following the assault. 

The bill also prohibits law enforcement agencies from destroying a rape kit and any additional evidence from an unsolved case before at least 20 years pass, or if a victim was under 18, until the victim’s 40th birthday. The statute of limitations for rape in California also has no limit, meaning that a survivor can report at any point they feel comfortable doing  so. These are more extensive measures than those that have historically been taken by the University, and they give victims more flexibility in reporting incidents. 

Reporting to law enforcement also grants specific protections. Although not all reports will result in criminal prosecution of the perpetrator, making a report mitigates the opportunities for assailants to act again. When crimes go unreported, perpetrators are able to act without consequence and are therefore more likely to act again. 

When victims report sexual crimes to a university, the university’s internal investigations or consequences do not prevent the perpetrator from acting again. Even if an assailant faces expulsion, they are not prevented from repeat offenses. In some cases, reporting to local law enforcement rather than reporting to the University will ensure students more immediate safety.

It is important that survivors are made aware of their rights. Under the Victims’ Bill of Rights, survivors are granted the opportunity to more easily decide when they would like to report, while also decreasing the amount of time required to be present in future criminal proceedings. 

Students need to remember the resources available to them outside the bounds of the University. While enhanced accessibility to resources will not end sexual violence and abuse, it can change the perceived severity of the consequences that occur as a result of abuse and ameliorate the pain suffered by victims.