Moving forward

In the wake of Referendum 1, the University must act to strengthen the sexual assault policy

By Maroon Editorial Board

After the student body overwhelmingly rejected the current sexual assault policy in last week’s referendum, the onus is now on the University’s administration to offer, as expeditiously as possible, a set of changes that are both acceptable to the campus community and workable for the staff and faculty. Though the referendum asked only whether students disapprove of assigning the power to adjudicate incidents to the accused’s academic division, the Working Group on the Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP) has raised a number of other concerns with the current policy, and the Maroon hopes administrators take this opportunity to rethink the existing sexual assault procedures in full.

The centerpiece of WGSAP’s proposed changes is a centralized process for adjudicating sexual assault reports. At present, incidents are considered by Area Disciplinary Committees, which are comprised of faculty from the accused’s academic division and at most two students. The lone advantage of using Area Disciplinary Committees seems to be that faculty members from the accused’s division are best suited to make the process a learning experience for the accused. But that rationale assumes a connection between the accused and his or her faculty that frequently doesn’t exist, and if nothing more, it creates an impression that the proceedings favor the accused.

Centralizing the disciplinary process reduces the risk of biases, whether real or perceived, but it doesn’t go far enough. In addition to forming a central disciplinary committee, as WGSAP has suggested, the Maroon believes administrators should grant the accused and the complainant the right to object, within reason, to the composition of the committee, and to ask that committee members recuse themselves from the proceedings. Faculty-student interactions that lead to conflicts of interest can arise in a number of contexts, not only within the student’s academic division. And given the size of the University community, there is no need for the membership of the panel to make the complainant or the accused uncomfortable, or otherwise compromise the process.

Redesigning the disciplinary committees is one part of overhauling the sexual assault policy, but more should be done. Those charged with reevaluating the University’s current policy will doubtless consider procedures in place at peer institutions, which can provide instructive examples of how our policy might better address the needs of all complainants. At the University of Virginia, for instance, complainants who choose not to pursue full disciplinary proceedings can still request a face-to-face meeting with the accused. The meetings are overseen by trained personnel, and though they don’t result in a verdict, they are useful for some victims.

Virginia is joined by Princeton, Wash U, and a number of other schools in offering anonymous reporting systems for sexual assaults. The reports are not grounds for arrests, but they provide crucial information for police and administrators working to reduce threats to the community. The ongoing debate over our University’s sexual assault policy demonstrates the problems with tailoring any one procedure to fit all incidents; adding options like anonymous reporting and non-adjudicatory meetings would help ensure that all victims get the kind of support they need.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and already it has seen some of our campus’s biggest advances on this issue: Students have called for a strengthening of the disciplinary policy, and, perhaps more importantly, WGSAP and its allies have focused our attention on the problem. With the topic on the minds of people across campus, this is an ideal time for administrators to take concrete action on the sexual assault policy. There are only three days left in April, and not one should be wasted in tackling this issue.

—The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief and Viewpoints Editor.