Sexual assault policy: Progress?

Administrators must not drag their feet on revising assault policy.

By Erica Wheeler

The Working Group on the Sexual Assault Policy is disappointed, if not surprised, that the University has yet to follow through on its promise to review our campus’s sexual assault policy.

In winter quarter, the Working Group collected more than 1,000 signatures from concerned members of the University community supporting necessary changes to the University’s sexual assault disciplinary policy. We called for sensitivity training, a centralized procedure, and equal rights for the accused and the accuser. Support for these changes came from across the University, including both undergraduate and graduate students. The Dean of the Social Service Administration, Jeanne Marsh, who helped write sexual assault laws for the state of Michigan, notably continues to support changes to our policy. Additionally, Student Government passed a resolution supporting the Working Group’s petition and called for the University to examine the sexual assault disciplinary procedure.

We were initially pleased to hear the administration’s intent to respond to these far-reaching student and faculty demands. The administration committed to fully implement one of the proposed reforms­—sensitivity training for disciplinary hearing committees—by the end of this quarter. However, this has yet to be accomplished.

The administration also indicated that a committee would be appointed by the end of this quarter to begin review of the sexual assault policy in the upcoming fall quarter. The Working Group has been in touch with the administration to discuss membership on this committee and to stress our recommendations for changing the disciplinary procedure. But as the end of the year approaches, given the lack of action and communication from the administration this quarter, we are concerned that this committee will not be appointed or convened.

Considering the publicity that has surrounded sexual assaults on our campus this year, we struggle to understand why the administration is not taking larger steps to even consider changes. Convening a review committee would be a strong indication that the University takes sexual assault seriously and wants to ensure that our campus is a safe place to live and learn. In the past few years, we have seen panels and policy reviews addressing campus transportation, health care, and safety. Sexual assault affects the health and well-being of our entire campus community, because, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women will be raped during their time in college. Therefore, the Working Group asks that the University address sexual assault with the same vigor as other issues by conducting a formal policy review.

The hesitation on the part of the administration to appoint a review committee signifies its unwillingness to identify flaws in the current system. These flaws became apparent to the Working Group in a 2007 complaint filed against the University through the Department of Education. This complaint accused the University of violating the requirement of a “prompt and equitable” trial, as mandated by Title IX. Additionally, this case caused the Working Group to question the University’s use of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to protect the educational record of only the accused, a part of the policy also brought up by administration in last month’s DKE Week panel.

The Working Group understands that changing any University protocol requires a lengthy process of discussion. However, we worry that if the University does not conduct a formal policy review in the upcoming academic year, necessary improvements to the sexual assault disciplinary process will not be considered, much less implemented, for at least another year. As the student body continues to show its concern, and as the potential for unreported or ill-addressed sexual assaults persists, such a delay cannot be taken lightly.

We look forward to working with the administration next year to ensure that the needed sensitivity training is implemented. The Working Group will continue to advocate for a full review of the policy, in the hope of creating a just and equitable process. We thank the many students and organizations that have supported our effort, especially Student Government for passing its timely resolution. We hope that we can count on continued support in the upcoming year, as we push to make our campus a safer place.

Erica Wheeler and Caroline Weisser are members of the Working Group on the Sexual Assault Policy.