February 23, 2010

Sexual assault reform on the table in policy review

A committee to review University disciplinary policy, including sexual assault cases, will meet “within the coming weeks,” according to administrators. The announcement comes a month after student activists proposed a Student Government referendum to centralize disciplinary procedures, a reform that has been rejected by the University for years.

Vice President for Campus Life Kimberly Goff-Crews outlined in an e-mail interview three issues the committee will consider: how the University should handle groups of students in disciplinary hearings; whether sexual assault should be addressed through a separate disciplinary process from academic infractions and if that process itself should be unified across all departments; and whether accusers receive enough information during the process.

The Working Group for Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP) has put pressure on the University to review disciplinary procedures since the group’s inception in 2008. “This was a primary goal, and we’re ecstatic,” WGSAP member and fourth-year Megan Carlson said.

Goff-Crews said the committee, announced by President Robert Zimmer in an open forum last week, would be composed of faculty, students, and staff, and that one undergraduate and one graduate student would serve. She added that a member of the WGSAP would likely serve on the committee. Goff-Crews did not set a timeline for a recommendation by the committee, though the search for members has already begun.

In the past, the University has decided not to change disciplinary procedures in response to WGSAP criticisms. One of the groups’ main recommendations—that the accused and accuser in sexual assault have equal access to testimony and records— has been turned down by the University for legal reasons.

“FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] protects the educational records of students, and the statement from the accused student is considered an educational record,” Dean of Students in the College Susan Art said last May. “We can’t build access for the accuser into our policy because it would look like a direct violation of FERPA.”

Carlson said citing FERPA to argue against equal disclosure of statements to both parties in a sexual assault case misses the point.

“We’re not saying that all testimony has to be disclosed,” Carlson said. But she argued the Department of Education never defined what an educational record is, and that disciplinary proceedings shouldn’t be treated the same way as academic records. “Any time FERPA is thrown around it’s very shaky because an educational record isn’t defined,” she said.

In 2005, then-Provost Richard Saller convened a committee that reaffirmed the importance of decentralized disciplinary procedures for both academic and non-academic misconduct. There was a “need to address particular needs and traditions of the academic units, best understood by their own faculty,” Goff-Crews said.

Carlson said while a department-by-department disciplinary system might make sense for academic misconduct, sexual assault needs a centralized body to fairly decide cases. “Sexual assault is different from plagiarism,” Carlson said.