News

Major shifts in handling of sexual assault cases

Changes including a new associate dean of students, a University-wide disciplinary committee, and altering two existing sexual assault policies will be implemented in July.

The University is making significant changes to its handling of sexual assault cases, creating a new associate dean of students of the University to deal specifically with complaints and concerns of sexual assault, instituting a new University-wide disciplinary committee to hear complaints, and combining and clarifying two existing sexual assault policies.

These changes, which will go into effect this July, were explained yesterday at a panel discussion with University administrators. Speakers included Dean of Students in the University Michele Rasmussen and Associate Dean Belinda Vazquez.

Currently, sexual harassment cases are investigated by the dean of students. If the dean of students determines the case to require further adjudication, it is forwarded to a disciplinary committee within the division of the students involved to decide on whether and how the accused should be punished. Students have expressed reluctance to reveal personal matters to deans and faculty from their academic unit, who may know both the victim and accused personally, the administrators said at the panel. The new structure will provide a separate Associate Dean to investigate all cases of sexual harassment, as well as a university-wide pool of trained faculty members representing all academic divisions to make up the disciplinary committee.

The implemented changes reflect faculty desire to incorporate specialized expertise on committees dealing with sexual assault cases, as well as a request to hear cases more frequently to aid in the practice of handling these cases. Removing the 12 separate committees from each academic unit on campus and creating one university wide committee will allow more frequent case reports and concentrated specialization in trained faculty, the deans said at the panel.

When questioned about the selection process for faculty and students in these committees, however, the Deans expressed uncertainty. It’s unclear to the administration as of now how the level of expertise in areas of sexual assault will be determined for committee members.

These infrastructural changes spawned from student concerns, faculty feedback, and feedback from public forums such as the Maroon. Last year’s Maroon investigative series about sexual assault awareness was cited as playing a role in these changes.

The change in policy will consist of the integration of the “Policy on Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment” and the “Policy on Sexual Assault.” The combination will potentially improve understanding of assault issues for both students and faculty, according to Vasquez.

“These university wide policies will be combined because right now, there’s just confusion about what constitutes sexual assault. This combination will provide new guidelines and clarification on what falls under the umbrella term sexual assault, and will ease the disciplinary process,” Vazquez said.

In addition to these infrastructural changes and updates to the sexual assault policies, there are ongoing efforts to bring awareness and support to issues of sexual assault. This week marks the first Sexual Assault Awareness Week, organized by third-year Sofia Flores, vice president for Administration of Student Government (SG). The week consists of events, panels, and displays, and serves as part of a continuous effort to bring awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault issues on campus.

“We aim to break the narrative that only women, or only college students, struggle with being assaulted; it’s an issue much broader than that,” Flores said.

Fourth-year Olivia Ortiz, founder of the Phoenix Survivors support group and active facilitator of many awareness events on campus, also expressed the need to broaden awareness. “I’m interested in seeing the University make its responsibility known to the students; we’re protected under laws like Title IX, FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], and Title II [Patriot Act], but it’s really hard to get access to them, resources provided need to be accountable, clear, and distinct,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz filed a complaint last April to the Department of Education about events that occurred in the 2011–2012 academic year, which has led to an ongoing campus-wide federal investigation about whether the university is in accordance with Title IX, an act regarding sex and educational discrimination.

Both Flores and Ortiz expressed optimism about the changes in policy and the increasing involvement of SG with the issue. SG has allotted $10,000 to sexual assault awareness events, support, and resources for the following academic year.