Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What Role Should College Administrators Play when Sexual Violence is Reported in their Community?

In recent months, there have been multiple lawsuits claiming due process and discrimination issues on campuses where students found responsible for acts of sexual violence have been suspended or expelled. In response, some states have initiated legislation to limit institutional investigation and/or adjudication of these incidents by college administrators. For example, Georgia proposed HB 51, a bill designed to cripple colleges' abilities to investigate and manage sexual assault incidents, regardless of safety concerns for the community.

With increasing debate surrounding college administrators' roles around the management and adjudication of these matters, we must remember that sexual violence on campus is not an issue new to Higher Education. The Department of Education issued its first “Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties” in the Federal Register in 1997. Then in 2001, it issued the following Revised Guidance. However, when the Department of Education released the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) in 2011, this topic garnered significantly more attention by college administrators due to the threat of cutting federal funding. The DCL proved to be a significant guidance document that essentially instructed colleges on specific Title IX compliance when sexual violence is reported.

So how did this issue become the media and legal firestorm it seems to be today? The answer is: student activism.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 college women and 1 in 16 college men will be a victim of sexual violence. Students impacted by violence want a safe college environment that the protections afforded under Title IX provide. Many of these individuals say they were not educated on their rights and therefore not privy to accommodations afforded to them, or the right to participate in college conduct proceedings.

Under Title IX, educational institutions receiving federal funding have the responsibility to investigate the harassment reported to them, address its effects, and prevent its reoccurrence. Through this, all students have the right to a prompt, fair and equitable investigation and/or adjudication process. The results can potentially hold an accused person accountable through the campus disciplinary process. This investigation/adjudication is independent from any potential criminal process. Having the option to report and participate in a campus process is essential for many victims, many of whom shared personal stories during the #DearBetsy campaign and are involved in student led advocacy groups such as End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX.   

Some advocacy groups and law firms representing the accused individuals believe that it is unfair for colleges to have an investigation and adjudication process for matters this contested. However, colleges believe that keeping the educational environment free from discrimination is paramount, thereby giving them the discretion to manage student behavior in a manner consistent with each institution’s values.

Colleges are thus caught in the middle. These are our students and we are responsible for ensuring that all have equal access to an education free from discrimination. We must provide resources and service to all parties, regardless of the outcome of an investigation, criminal or conduct proceeding. We strive to empower victims to make informed choices about reporting while also balancing the needs of the accused through providing a fair and equitable process.

Jordan L. Draper, EVAWI Associate Board Member
Elizabeth Gallus, EVAWI Advisory Board Member