MargaretI cannot get the sad story of the Stanford University rape case out of my mind.

Maybe it is because I was part of the group that established the Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County and counseled victims of sexual assault from adolescents to senior citizens.

Maybe it is because two decades ago, a young man of my acquaintance was accused of date rape at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was prosecuted by the state and defended at great cost to his family. The case ended in a plea arrangement, and his life continued, though hardly unscathed. I do not know the young woman involved, but I feel certain her life has changed as well.

Perhaps it is because I am the mother of the Precious Jewels, two sons and a daughter, and adore each of them.

Everyone with a television or internet access has heard the disturbing story. A promising student and Olympic swimming hopeful at the prestigious Stanford University was convicted of sexual assault of a young woman as she lay unconscious behind a garbage dumpster having passed out from alcohol consumption. The 20-year-old attacker was caught by two passersby, who tackled him as he ran away and turned him over to law enforcement. Compounding the already horrendous situation was the trial judge who gave the convicted felon an astounding six-month sentence, announcing in court that any more time would have “a severe impact on him.” His own father did more damage by penning an astonishing letter to the court, whining that his son’s life is now forever changed and “that is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” He could have received 14 years.

The sad dad spoke on behalf of his son, but the 23-year-old victim who has not been identified spoke for herself, leaving no doubt that her life has been upended in ways equally if not more profoundly than that of her now-tarnished golden boy attacker. 

I do not know if this incident and many others like it are more prevalent among American college students than they once were, but I do have some thoughts about what we have seen in recent years.

Alcohol is often the fuel that ignites these assaults, but we are fools if we think we can keep it away from young adults. With all good intentions three decades ago, we required states to institute 21 as the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol. In every other way, we allow those 18 and older to be adults. They can get married, can buy a house or a car on credit, can serve and die for our nation in combat. But have a beer legally? No way, we say. We may have saved some lives on the highway, but we have turned alcohol into forbidden fruit. We have turned our young people into lawbreakers when they buy and consume it and ourselves into hypocrites for looking the other way. Our national policy has been a national failure and needs to change.

Sexual assault is sexual assault no matter where it occurs. It should be dealt with by law enforcement and our legal system, not by college and university administrators who all too often have vested and strong interests in protecting their institutions. Baylor University is but the latest school to apologize for mishandling sexual improprieties within its football program, and it is probably not the last. These are criminal justice matters, not college pranks.

Somehow, we as responsible adults are not communicating effectively enough with our young adults about how to conduct themselves. Drunkenness is not an attractive or desirable state of being, and it does not promote good judgment. People who are drunk do things they would never do otherwise, and drunkenness is not a legal excuse. “Beer made me do it” does not fly in a court of law, whether the offense is jaywalking or attacking an unconscious woman. By the same token, while a 23-year-old woman drinking herself silly is not a crime, it does leave her open to an attack by a sexual predator, like the Stanford swimmer.

And, finally, respect for each other is overdue for a comeback with all of us. We live in a society that has adopted insulting each other as a sport — think Donald Trump. We give a pass to people who hurt each other’s feelings, and it is a short jump from that to hurting each other’s bodies. Many of our young adults seem to have missed the lesson on respect, and it is up to us to acquaint them with the concept.

My favorite litmus test that I passed on to my Precious Jewels is simple.

Do you want your family and friends to read about what you are doing on the front page of the paper and all over the internet?

If not, don’t do it.

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