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Monday, February 10, 2014

Week Spots

Last week, an alumna published a Facebook post questioning Trinity University's sexual misconduct policy, which elicited a significant amount of social media attention. As a result, the Student Government Association (SGA) coordinated a campus-wide forum for discussion. The SGA President, Evan Lewis, properly felt that the topic of sexual assault  had been simmering after a high-profile case decision in the fall became public, and following the return to campus of a previously suspended student led a survivor to transfer. The large student turnout at the forum was gratifying and the discussion was beneficial.

Because issues like this have a lasting digital footprint, I hope to clarify some of the issues here, for the record.

- The criticism of the policy is almost exclusively over the sanction guidelines, which range from suspension to expulsion. Some believe the sanction should be mandatory expulsion. Most campuses and policies avoid mandated sanctions because they're problematic. It can be challenging for boards generally pre-disposed to avoid separating students from the university, to determine a finding of "responsible" when suspension, let alone permanent removal, is the only option. And so, for that reason, mandated expulsion can sometimes work against itself. For example, I've seen boards find someone - who is responsible (say, for a drug violation) - not responsible in order to not suspend that student as required. Further, in sexual assault cases, some survivors may be ambivalent and uneasy about mandated sanctions. Having a mandatory expulsion sanction may lead a survivor to not report.

- Our sexual misconduct policy was revised as recently as last year. A national consultant provides Trinity with a policy guideline that is built on case law, experience, and best practices. It is a model policy. There seems to be a perception that the full policy is flawed because of the sanction language. The policy was approved by the University Standards Committee last summer.

- It is essential to all of us that the students of Trinity University are safe, and students believe that the University is responsive to their needs and concerns. While some are expressing broad concerns about "the University" in this discussion, it can be helpful to clarify who makes up the "University" in addressing the campus climate, policies, and procedures related to sexual assault.

The Standards Committee and the Boards that make conduct decisions are comprised of students (selected by SGA), faculty (selected by Faculty Senate), and staff members (selected by Student Affairs). While the Dean of Students Office is responsible for overseeing the student conduct process, the procedures, policies, and decisions are all in the hands of representatives of the campus community. Attacks on the integrity of the "University," are essentially attacks on the campus community.

- Sexual misconduct is addressed through policy, procedures, and education. In addition to a Bystander Intervention program, the campus community has hosted the Can I Kiss You Program and Katie Koestner on several occasions. Ironically, the above referenced "high-profile" case mentioned in the opening paragraph actually occurred the same night as the new students went through the Bystander Intervention program. Education and prevention programs simply are not enough on their own; this effort must work hand-in-hand with stakeholders changing the campus culture.

That culture is shared by everyone here, including the students. Sexual assaults could be reduced if students, mostly males, pledged to protect the sexual safety of other students. How? For one, they could host parties that don't include common-source containers of unknown types and amounts of alcohol. Also, students could staff events with sober monitors and ensure that guests return home safely, and with friends. Peer education and awareness don't work on their own if students don't adhere to the call to action. Some say this notion is designed to deflect responsibility away from the campus judicial process. Shouldn't students insist on being empowered to make change, rather than be offended by it? Drunk drivers should go to jail after the fact, but drunk driving education - coupled with a change in culture in which calling a cab or assigning a designated driver is common practice - has reduced fatalities over the years.

- Unfortunately, the culture and process often are judged based on the latest, highest profile case - not on an overall history of equitably decided case outcomes. Each case must be handled with fairness and sensitivity to all. Sometimes the evidence doesn't meet the standard for a violation, despite its apparent level of egregiousness.

- Those of us involved in the conduct process know it isn't perfect. And so it is a process we are always reviewing, seeking counsel and improving communications. The web page and policy was developed after similar concerns from faculty and students several years ago, and revised and updated again this summer. The fall case was reviewed by a consultant, and measures are already in motion to streamline the hearing process.

It would be irresponsible to not give significant attention to this issue. Annually staff receives professional development through conferences, seminars, training, information collection, and research.  We meet with the best of the best in this field; and no one finds the solutions simple.  It is impossible to appropriately manage this issue without constant nurturing.

In summary, the policies, the process, decisions, and sanctions all come from the student, faculty, and staff communities. Surely we all want a safe campus environment, responsible dialog, and changes that improve the system and process. We hope to continue to work together toward that end. 

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