College considers sexual assault policy changes

Margolis Healy Zhenglong Zhou 5

The college is considering instituting a hearing process for sexual assault cases that would not require the complainant to sit in the same room as the respondent, college officials told Phoenix staff in a press conference earlier this week. They also said that an administrative committee aims to complete a version of a new sexual misconduct policy to replace the current interim policy by this summer.

Administrators at the conference stressed the firm Margolis Healy’s positive comments about the college’s response to concerns about its handling of sexual misconduct in their final report, which was sent to students last Thursday (see nearby article for more information).

“What the college has done in six months many institutions would not have been able to do in six years,” said Director of Public Safety Mike Hill.

All seven of the administrators at the conference, including Dean of Students Liz Braun, spoke about upcoming projects to assess and improve the ways in which the college deals with sexual misconduct. One focus, administrators said, will be on integrating student groups into the process of administrative regulation of campus safety — such as with the newly reorganized Party Associate program, SwatTeam, though also with other groups.

“I see us working with student groups or individuals who want to do programming such as SMART (Sexual Misconduct Advisors and Resource Team) and the ASAP (Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention) team,” said Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris. “We are re-envisioning what student engagement will look like so that all levels of students can participate.”

Another recurring theme at the conference was policy clarity.

“We are trying to make the whole process [of reporting an incident] more understandable, from the initial meeting with the Title IX coordinator to the hearing itself,” Braun said. “Students have said in the past that the process is confusing.”

Harris said the college wants to work to make sure that both complainants and respondents are aware of the options available to them, including seeking outside legal counsel, and, in the case of respondents, pursuing the case through the court system.

The administrators also responded to the criticism that obligating all students employed by the college in positions of responsibility over other students to report sexual misconduct has filled the college with too many mandatory reporters, which could prevent students who do not want wish to have an incident investigated from feeling comfortable coming forward with it. Prior to a 2013 policy change, RAs were the only students clearly identified by the college as mandatory reporters. Administrators said that the current policy — in particular the policy of having RAs as mandatory reporters — is mandated by law and is not a matter of their judgement.

“RAs have been legally listed as a recommended and required resource for a long time,” Braun said.

When asked if the college had then previously been in violation of federal law, one administrator said, “That’s one way that that could be written.”

Administrators also said that they think that mandatory reporting should not be discouraging. “We aren’t going for compliance [with an obligation],” Harris said. “We are going for connections. Reporting is supporting peers.”

There are currently two committees of students, faculty and staff that working to address sexual misconduct issues, administrators said. The Sexual Misconduct Task Force, chaired by Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton, going forward will focus on looking at broader campus culture issues, administrators said. It may, they said, finish its work before spring break. Meanwhile, the Dean’s Advisory Council, Braun said, allows students to communicate directly with the administration. Braun said she wants it to encourage “bottom-up” policy exchanges in which students bring their concerns directly to the administration.

Last year, several students filed complaints with the United States Department of Education alleging that the college violated Title IX and the Clery Act in its handling of sexual assault. Administrators have maintained that they have not seen the complaints.

The Daily Gazette was also invited to the conference, but did not attend.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that the Sexual Misconduct Task Force is working on finalizing the college’s interim sexual assault policy and that that might be complete prior to spring break. In fact, a separate staff committee is working on that and plans to complete some version of the new policy by summer 2014, administrators said. This error occurred in the editing process, and is not the fault of the reporter. The article also said that the task force works on dealing with reactions to policy implementation. Administrators did say that in the press meeting, but Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, the task force’s chair, told the Phoenix the task force does not work on that. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.

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