Sexual assault policy reform efforts bolstered

The Working Group for Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP), formed in 2008, is concerned the University is not taking up what it considers serious revisions to the disciplinary process for sexual assault cases.

By Christina Pillsbury

A group determined to reform the University’s sexual assault policy met Tuesday night to plan a more hard-line approach with the administration, days after retaining a lawyer. That approach may include a campus-wide referendum.

The Working Group for Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP), formed in 2008, is concerned the University is not taking up what it considers serious revisions to the disciplinary process for sexual assault cases.

“We’re not waiting for the administration to do the right thing anymore. We are going to put more direct pressure on them,” WGSAP member and second-year SSA student Ursula Wagner said.

At their Tuesday meeting, WGSAP decided to go directly to the students with a referendum on the Student Government ballot in the spring. “The University is hugely receptive to students. They don’t move forward a lot until they hear [from the students],” WGSAP member and fourth-year Megan Carlson said.

Currently, when a student claims he or she is sexually assaulted by another student, faculty from the accused’s department determine whether a crime has taken place, and if so, an appropriate punishment. WGSAP considers faculty bias a potential conflict of interest and the decentralized process inefficient.

WGSAP members met with administrators late last quarter, but were told that several of their recomendations would not be implemented. They sought legal aid for interpretations of federal laws administrators claimed precluded certain reform, and to craft a new approach in dealing with the administration. This approach will materialize in future meetings with administrators, members said.

Many of these issues were raised when an alumna claimed she was assaulted by a graduate student in 2007. According to her complaint, the alumna was repeatedly told her case would be heard by the University. But it took three months for the hearing to convene, during which time the alumna claimed she was advised by University officials not to seek legal council.

When the disciplinary committee found no evidence of assault, the alumna brought her case to court; the Department of Education investigated the claim in 2008, but it was ultimately dismissed because the Department lacked jurisdiction.

“The way this has been handled by the [redacted] University has been cruel and damaging to her,” said Bonnie Kanter, an advisor in the College and a sexual assault dean on call, in an August 2007 e-mail directed to members of the hearing committee. Kanter was the student’s advocate during the hearing, and continued, “All she wants to do is move on and try to put this horrible situation behind her, but the fact that this hearing has been rescheduled over and over again will not allow her to heal.

WGSAP formed after the alumna said her experience was traumatic enough to discourage others from reporting cases of sexual assault to University officials.

“The case catalyzed this initiative and…we’ve heard from other people who felt like the University was unresponsive,” Wagner said.

Last spring, WGSAP petitioned for centralization—for a single body to handle every accusation of sexual assault. It also asked that anyone on a disciplinary committee receive sensitivity training and that the accused and the accuser receive equal access to testimonies and appeals.

The University took steps to address these concerns, and formed a committee in October to address how disciplinary panels are prepared. It is currently drafting a curriculum for sensitivity training, said Wagner, who sits on the committee.

But the administration said it will likely not adopt WGSAP’s other proposals. When they met with WGSAP last quarter, administrators said Provost Thomas Rosenbaum had not approved its requests for centralization and for the accused’s testimony to be fully disclosed to the accuser.

Rosenbaum’s decision is based on a 2005 committee on disciplinary procedures which justified a decentralized process. “It was the committee’s assessment that the processes should stay decentralized because of the differing academic cultures in each unit, the different and changing demographic profiles of each unit, as well as the importance of the continued role of faculty in all disciplinary matters,” Vice-President of Campus and Student Life Kim Goff-Crews said in an e-mail.

WGSAP members argued that differing academic cultures should not play a role in the disciplining of sexual assault cases.

“The way that [the administration] talks about the issue is that sexual assault varies by department and that sexual assault has an academic component,” said WGSAP member and first-year SSA student Kevin Cherry. “It’s mind boggling that anyone would think of sexual assault outside of the scope that this person was violated.”

Booth professor Harry Davis, who was at the meeting and has served on committees investigating disciplinary reform, said the one case cited by WGSAP members does not necessarily indicate a larger problem. “We move quickly,” he said. “It’s an empirical question and [I wonder] whether it’s an exception to the rule.”

Davis “applauded” the hard work WGSAP members had done on the issue, and added that administrators were not ignoring their claims. “It should be reassuring to students that there has been a lot of thought given to this.”