Investigative Series, Part II: Sexual assault hearing process at U of C

Due to student concerns and the recommendations of a Provost Committee, the disciplinary process has changed in recent years.

By Joy Crane

This is the second installment of a quarter-long series on sexual assault, the first of which was published on Oct. 12. It can be found here. The third installment was published on Nov. 13 and can be found here.

Recent media attention, particularly an account of sexual assault at Amherst University which went viral, has thrust to the fore the issue of response infrastructure for college sexual assault cases. A University’s response apparatus is multifaceted, but the disciplinary process is an integral component. The University of Chicago’s disciplinary policy as it stands now reflects three significant updates that have been implemented over the course of the past three years after prolonged student pressure and federal clarifications. In this second installment of the Maroon’s series, we’ll be explaining what a disciplinary process for sexual assault cases looks like at the U of C, and how the process has evolved in recent years.

The complaint

The official response by the University begins when a student first contacts a Sexual Assault Dean on Call, a call that is often made after a referral from a friend or adviser. The University has five Sexual Assault Deans-on-Call on current rotation, who have each undergone 56 hours of training from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“The things that the Sexual Assault Deans-on-Call do across the board is that they provide information, they provide support, and they describe options,” said Vickie Sides, a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call and the Director of the University’s Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP).

If the victim chooses to take disciplinary action through the University, their point of entry into the disciplinary process depends on which school the accused belongs to. The student meets with the Dean of Students from the College, or the dean of the graduate division of the student who allegedly committed the assault. This meeting typically takes place within the week of the the initial call to the Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call.

The choice to pursue disciplinary action is ultimately up to the victim. But Belinda Vazquez, Associate Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs and the Title IX Coordinator for Students, emphasizes, “We always want to encourage that student to consider discipline as an option…By the time they’re talking to a Dean of Students, they’re pursuing pretty strongly that they want to take it to discipline.”

The Dean of Students meets separately with the accused to explain that proceedings have been initiated against him or her and to ascertain his or her version of events. Both the accused and the alleged victim then submit written statements. The Dean of Students may also call on other witnesses in order to obtain information and additional statements about the events. At this point it is determined whether the case will go to a disciplinary hearing.

The hearing and recent changes

Prior to the hearing, both parties and the disciplinary hearing board are granted access to the written statements of the accused, complainant, and witnesses, with some details redacted out of privacy concerns. Equal access to materials for both parties was formalized in the summer of 2011 after a federal clarification from the Office of Civil Rights of the requirements of Title IX as they relate to sexual harassment and assault. Such equal access to materials was a major aim of student activist group Working Group on Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP). Prior to the explicit equalization of access, the accused always had access to the alleged victim’s statement and the alleged victim’s access was contingent upon permission from the accused. However, University spokesperson Jeremy Manier pointed out that the accused typically gave this permission for documentation access to the alleged victim.

Bianca Lara, an RSVP Peer Educator who was sexually assaulted by a student in 2010, went through the disciplinary process prior to this clarification, before document access was formally equalized.  “I requested access, and it was denied to me (by the accused),” Lara said.

“I felt like it was catered to the rapist. I was not allowed to see any of his documents, yet he had access to all of mine, including my personal statement.”

The people allowed at the hearing are limited to the hearing committee, which includes the Dean of Students and a representative of the Office of Campus and Student life in a non-voting capacity; both parties and the moral support person that each may select; and witnesses. If the accused student is a member of the College, the rest of the committee is drawn from a standing College disciplinary committee. For cases in which the accused is a graduate or professional student, the rest of the committee is selected according to division-specific guidelines of the alleged assailant’s graduate division.

In a 2010 University-wide referendum, students voted against having members of an alleged assailant’s graduate division hear his or her case. WGSAP, a primary force behind the referendum, argued that the decentralized approach risked committee bias in the case of small divisions, such as the 450-student School of Social Service Administration. Following recommendations from the Provost’s Committee, the policy was changed to diversify the hearing board in these small graduate division cases: New requirements mandated the addition of the College Disciplinary Committee Chair to the members of the accused’s division in the hearing, as well as the addition of a student board member from a graduate division outside that of the complainant or accused. This diversified but decentralized approach was explained by Vazquez: “You have members of the community that’s affected on the board, as well as a College chair, and a student that is not representing either party’s area, to create more of an objective disciplinary group hearing the case.”

On the day of the disciplinary hearing, the accused is the first party to give their optional opening statement and be questioned by the disciplinary hearing board. As ensured by the Sexual Assault Victim Bill of Rights 1992 Amendment to the Clery Act, both the accused and the alleged victim are entitled to having one moral support person in the hearing, such as a lawyer or a Sexual Assault Dean-on-Call. The moral support person may not address or respond to the hearing board. Both parties have the option to give an opening statement, and each has the right to be present throughout the hearing, with the exception of the deliberation process.

Prior to the hearing, the disciplinary board is led through sensitivity discussions regarding both questioning and deliberation. This added step was first implemented in the 2009-2010 academic year.

In a hearing just prior to the implementation of the sensitivity discussions, “The faculty that was on the committee were joking about frat parties on campus. There was one point where I was asked if I party a lot,” Lara said.

Now, sensitivity discussions serve to educate the hearing board about University policy, the Illinois statute regarding sexual assault, institutional obligations to protect all students, considerations of rape culture, and how to sensitively pose questions in a hearing setting, according to Sides.

“You want to avoid the person feeling revictimized by the line of questioning,”  said Sides, who acts as a sensitivity discussion leader.

Following committee deliberation, the accused student and the alleged victim are informed as concurrently as possible of the results of the hearing. Each has the opportunity to request a review of the case within 15 days, claiming a miscarriage of procedure or the emergence of new evidence.

The national context

The University is not the sole architect of this process. The Office of Civil Right’s clarification, the “Dear Colleague letter,” aimed to tighten procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints in federally funded higher education institutions under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The letter mandates that the burden of proof required for colleges to take action is less than that required for criminal convictions, answering a long standing question as to what the general standard of proof is in university disciplinary hearings in cases of sexual assault.

Under the new mandate, colleges need only a “preponderance of evidence” showing it’s more likely than not that the assault occurred, not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the newly lowered standard of evidence needed for adjudication does not resolve some ongoing concerns. In cases that involve inebriation, the ‘he-said she-said’ component still mires a trajectory of justice in disciplinary hearings.

“[The hearing board] wanted to know the extent of my intoxication… It seems like a lose-lose situation. In one moment you could say, I was really drunk to the point where I was blacked out and I don’t remember what happened. And then the disciplinary committee could say, ‘oh well she doesn’t know what happened, how do you know that this even occurred.’ But then if you say, ‘oh well I didn’t drink that much,’ well then you should be able to recall everything,” Lara said.

National data suggests that the likelihood of sexual assault victims on college campus receiving justice is slim. According to a 2002 Justice Department-funded study, less than five percent of college-age women who report their sexual assaults do so to an official university body. Taken in combination with the fact that, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, colleges expel only around 10 to 25 percent of men who are found “responsible” for sexual assault, more often than not, the guilty will walk.

Asked about the opportunity for justice afforded by the University’s system, both Vazquez and Sides emphasized that an abstract notion of justice isn’t always what a victim is seeking.

“It’s so case by case…Justice is a very difficult thing to quantify…. But in terms of acknowledgement, recognition, support, I think that we are able to provide that in greater ways to students. And I don’t know if that equals justice, but I guess that would depend,” Sides said.

The Maroon is committed to achieving as thorough knowledge as possible of all aspects of this issue. If you have information on the history of U of C’s policies with regard to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experiences relating to sexual assault and/or subsequent hearings, please contact us. or