April 20, 2010

Sexual assault policy put to vote

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A referendum on whether or not the University should change sexual assault policy will go before the student body today as part of the Student Government (SG) election. The referendum is the first in three years.

Students may vote Tuesday through Thursday on the SG Web site alongside the SG elections. Voting “no” on the referendum supports a reform of the current sexual assault procedures, while voting “yes” supports the current procedure, a decentralized process in which sexual assault cases are handled within each academic unit.

Though the referendum will not automatically enact any change to current policy, members of the Working Group on Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP), who have been promoting a change for years, hope overwhelming student support will prompt action from the provost’s review committee, including WGSAP member and second-year School of Social Service Administration student Ursula Wagner.

“We’re not just hoping for a majority. We’re hoping for an overwhelming majority,” Wagner said.

Deputy Dean of Student Affairs in the Office of Campus and Student Life Martina Munsters said the review committee would make an informed choice on reform taking into account many differing opinions on the policy. “Knowing how the student body views the issues raised in the referendum is likely to come up in the discussions of the committee,” Munsters said. “The committee will make recommendations to the provost.”

According to WGSAP member and fourth-year Megan Carlson, divisions like the Divinity School with a small faculty pool create conflicts of interest because the accused faces a panel of familiar professors. Carlson also cited a lack of uniform procedures and privacy concerns among the chief problems with the current policy.

WGSAP advocates the creation of a pool of well-trained faculty from many departments that could be called to handle each case. The cases would also be centralized, making them more fair and no more expensive, Carlson said.

The group achieved one of its major goals in the past year when the University implemented sensitivity training for faculty serving on the disciplinary boards, where they had received none before. “No one understood why sexual assault cases are different than a normal case. A lot of people were handling it like it was a plagiarism case, which was totally different,” Carlson said. The sensitivity curriculum is almost completed.

WGSAP, a group Carlson described as a “grassroots, renegade RSO,” began work two and a half years ago in response to a 2007 sexual assault case at the University.

After reading through a record of the proceedings, the student group saw a need for reform. “[The case] was incredibly botched,” Carlson said. “A case should be prompt and equitable. It was neither.”

Efforts by WGSAP and student support led to the creation of a review committee by the provost this year. Members of WGSAP believe that another demonstrated show of student support of the referendum will lead to changes in the policy.

“Ask the average person what happens when they file a sexual assault charge. They don’t know,” Wagner said. With flyers and banners across campus as well as a Facebook campaign, WGSAP has encouraged students to consider the current system.

Carlson said no student groups have stepped forward to oppose the changes, and first-year candidate for undergraduate liason to the Board of Trustees Frank Alarcon said he supports reform. “I disagree that professors should be in the business of determining what is and isn’t sexual assault,” Alarcon said, adding that he is planning to vote no on the referendum.

Even if WGSAP doesn’t get a majority of the votes, it will continue to fight for sexual assault policy reform. “If it doesn’t get passed, we won’t give up,” Carlson said of the referendum.