School postpones creation of hearing panel

Dean of Students Liz Braun sent a student-wide email on October 22 announcing that the appointment and implementation process of the Sexual Assault and Harassment Hearing Panel would be put on hold this semester. According to the email, “a number of substantial concerns from students and other members” convinced the administration to pause the process of implementing the panel.

Earlier in the month, the Swarthmore Independent, a publication that provides counterclaims on issues at Swarthmore, voiced fears about a “potential for bias and arbitrariness” in the college’s judiciary process invited by the Interim Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy’s new hearing panel. Danielle Charette ’15, the coauthor of the article, expressed concerns about the organization of the panel and the ambiguities regarding the circumstances under which it would intervene.

“I was troubled that the panel could proceed with just three people,” said Charette. “It’s my understanding that a CJC  (College Judiciary Committee) panel addressing less serious cases, such as plagiarism or vandalism, often has seven or eight people hear the case. Three people just doesn’t seem sufficient when you’re deciding on as weighty an issue as sexual assault. Also, the interim policy doesn’t clarify when cases will go to an adjudicator and when they will go to a panel. This ambiguity could lead to administrative abuse, especially if people were eager to remove someone from campus without proper due process.”

These concerns extended beyond the hearing panel itself and to the appointment process of student panelists as well. In the first week of October, a student-wide email soliciting applicants for seats on the hearing panel was sent and a number of applications were received by the Student Council Appointments Committee. According to Yuan Qu ’14, the StuCo appointments chair, conversations among the committee members, the deans, and the Title IX Coordinator Patricia Fischette shed light to the greater complexities of its implementation.

“A hearing panel like this is very new, and the school’s never done it before so there were a lot more questions and complexities that needed to be fleshed out than anybody realized first going into this,” said Qu.

Some of these complexities involve the complications that arise from the conflicting responsibilities of certain appointment committee members as campus security advisers. Qu, as the appointments chair, usually goes through the first batch of applications, selecting which candidates to be interviewed. Outside of the committee, Qu is also a campus security adviser (CSA), and this role legally requires her to report any cases of assault—including any sexual assault cases that are revealed in the applications.

“I was also in conversation with Rachel  [Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head] with my position as a Campus Security Adviser and how that would mean that if any information was disclosed in the application about previous experiences with sexual assault or harassment of any kind […] I would have to […] report that to Patricia Fischette [title IX coordinator],” said Qu.

Qu’s conflicting roles and their implications on how applications would be reviewed convinced that the appointments process should be paused.

These considerations led up to the broader questions of what criteria would be used to select for applicants and what qualities would characterize the best candidate for a hearing panel that handles sexual assault cases.

“Strengths and weaknesses that would apply to a typical applicant we’re looking for […] change here because of the nature of it, ” said Qu

The hearing panel, which was proposed in the Interim Sexual Assault and Harassment Policy, would be a fact-finding board comprised of trained staff, faculty and student panelists. The administration initially believed that creating a separate panel for sexual assault and harassment cases would allow for specialization and breadth in the kinds of environments under which such cases could proceed.

“We’ve really been trying to look for best practices around the country, and so one of the things that we noticed was that many institutions, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, have moved to a model of having a separate and distinct hearing panel for these types of cases, and I think that’s really for two reasons. One, because of the […] additional accommodations that need to be made in terms of the students who are participating in those cases. I think the other reason why many institutions have moved in that direction is because the particular training that needs to be involved for those types of hearing panels is a very specialized training […] and so again I think that was why we in the interim policy decided to go with that model,” said Braun.

However, because of the concerns that were raised, the administration decided to pause the implementation of the hearing panel and to further engage the community in conversations about what would ultimately suit the needs of the College. Meantime, all sexual assault and harassment cases will be heard by an external adjudicator.

“I think it’s really important in this process that we continue to balance both looking at what best practices are around the country, what we can learn from other institutions and at the same time thinking about within our specific environment and culture what ultimately is going to be the right fit for us,” Braun said.