A student group frustrated with current sexual assault policy will seek wide-ranging support in a campus-wide referendum this spring, the first such referendum in three years.
The Working Group on Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP) approached Student Government (SG) President and fourth-year Jarrod Wolf last week about adding a referendum to the spring SG election. WGSAP members said the motion will likely advocate forming a single, independent body to hear disciplinary procedures, and providing equal access to testimony and appeals for accuser and accused.
“We want this [referendum] to be as simple and easy to understand as possible,” WGSAP member and second-year SSA student Ursula Wagner said.
Under current sexual assault policy, faculty from the division in which the accused student is enrolled—Physical Sciences, College, etc.—determine whether assault has taken place, and what an appropriate punishment should be.
“Whether you’re an accused or accuser you really don’t want this to go in front of your faculty,” Wagner said, because professors could form biases against students they know, and students may not want future professors knowing personal details about them. WGSAP received a major complaint that the process was traumatic for a student claiming she was sexually assaulted.
The last time a referendum was brought to vote was in the 2007 slate elections, when students voted by a slim majority to support U of C participation in U-Pass, a CTA program that gives unlimited rides to full-time University students.
But SG referendums are non-binding for both SG and University administration, and because the majority was not overwhelming, the administration did not implement U-Pass.
“It’s really important to understand the power that [SG’s] influence has in decision-making within the University.” Wolf said, “If the overwhelming [majority] supports one position, 70/30 or 80/20, then SG will have a lot of influence in this issue.”
Wolf said SG will support the proposal if it passes with a strong enough majority. “If the referendum passes in one particular way,” he said, “it would provide the impetus for SG to talk to administration; it really allows us to do our jobs.”
In order for the referendum to be added to the SG ballot this spring, WGSAP must collect signatures from at least five percent of University students, Wolf said, or 758 students.
Last spring, WGSAP collected over 1,000 signatures for a petition urging the administration to review sexual assault policy. Though all of their requests weren’t met, Wagner said she’s encouraged by that level of support.
“We’re pretty confident about that part of it,” said Wagner, referring to the required signatures. “People were saying, ‘Oh, well, that shouldn’t be a problem, we did that last time.’”
Wolf suggested in December that WGSAP bring their concerns to a student vote after administration officials said they would mandate sensitivity training for all disciplinary panels, but did not address WGSAP’s other concerns.
“I’m excited when students attempt to bring a referendum to the table, I think it’s a very powerful way to bring issues to the administration,” Wolf said. “It’s also a powerful way to educate students on an issue.”
Sharlene Holly, director of the Office of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities and an advisor to SG, said the referendum can be a last-ditch effort for students. “It’s something that requires a lot of work, and there’s a lot of other avenues that students take to affect change, so they haven’t always felt like they need to go that route.”
WGSAP, which has been in deliberation with the administration since 2008, is prepared for another long-haul to address their concerns.
“You can’t just pass a referendum and then it happens,” said WGSAP member and fourth-year Megan Carlson. “It’s going to have to be a discussion because nothing moves fast in the University.”
Scott Duncombe (A.B. ’08), who was College Council chairman at the time of the U-Pass referendum, was glad to hear this process was being used again.
“They’re definitely underused,” he said. “It’s a great way to get the campus talking, not just the College, but all the grad students get involved too.”