Evan Hierholzer and Bridget Weisenburger
Managing Editor, Contributing Writer
The Department of Education released a list of colleges nationwide — including Southern Methodist University in Dallas — that are under investigation for possible violations in their handling of sexual assault cases under Title IX. This happened shortly after the Obama Administration announced last week an escalated program to deal with sexual assaults on college campuses.
The investigations were sparked by student complaints filed against the schools.
The unprecedented naming of campuses in 27 states was meant to increase public awareness of civil rights and the federal government’s enforcement work, said Catherine E. Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights. But she added that the fact that a school is on the list “in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law.”
Concerns about sexual assaults on college campuses were again brought home to UD when the Office of Campus Safety (CSO) reported on April 12 that a sexual assault had occurred in Gregory Hall.
Capt. Charles Steadman said the assault was an attempted date rape and the victim was a female student. The assailant was a former student. The victim chose not to press charges, Steadman said, and the assailant has been banned from campus.
The attack, which occurred during the Office of Student Life’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, was nationally that has fueled a growing concern about sexual assault on college campuses.
The federal government has been pressuring universities to revise their policies concerning sexual assault as well as increasing awareness about the issue in the hope that it will lead to a decrease in cases. That pressure increased when President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which included the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE).
As an institution receiving aid under Title IV, UD is required by law to make public certain information about the school’s polices concerning sexual violence. According to the Clery Center For Security On Campus, under the VAWA reauthorization, universities are required to include data in their annual security report statements of policy.
The report must include the school’s detailed and specific definition of consent and should include what does not constitute consent. It must also detail and provide specific definitions of sexual assault and domestic violence. That report is to be submitted in the 2013 annual security report, due Oct. 1, 2014.
The SaVE Act also requires schools to put into writing the procedures victims can follow in the case of an offense. For instance, they can be encouraged to notify outside police agencies but are never required to do so.
Steadman said the CSO made all the required changes in April 2013.
The SaVE Act calls for transparency, accountability, education and collaboration. The school is required to provide victims “a clear description of [the] institution’s disciplinary process,” in written form; students should “know the range of possible sanctions,” according to the Clery Center’s website. Schools must also put in place prevention and awareness programs. A full list of requirements can be found on the Clery Center for Security on Campus website.
The University of Dallas has been in the process of updating its policies and procedures to ensure it is in compliance.
“This was signed in 2013, and all universities needed to be compliant with the act by March 2014,” said Jina Johansen, head coach of the UD women’s basketball team and member of a faculty-and-staff committee that has been considering the issue.
Dr. John Plotts, vice president of enrollment and student affairs, said part of UD’s response has been the formation of two committees to examine the topic. One is a committee of faculty and staff and the other is of students.
The VAWA “has three parts,” Plotts said. “One is the reporting part: how you report these activities on the Clery Report and how you define them, because sexual assault can be defined as stalking, dating violence, domestic violence. So first you have to define, then you have to report, you have to educate. So we have to have programming in place to educate students on what constitutes sexual assault and how you go about it. And then the final one is how … you process these claims.”
The faculty committee has been primarily looking at how to define consent and how to make the process as clear and accessible as possible for students.
“What we are looking at is having real clear procedures laid out on the UD webpage, easily accessible,” said Mike Brock, a counselor and member of the faculty-and-staff committee.
UD has looked at the policies of several other schools, he said. One school “defines the ability to give consent as not having any alcohol at all.” He said it’s unlikely UD would consider such a strict definition.
A key change that has come about is that “The standard of evidence is no longer beyond reasonable doubt; it’s preponderance of evidence,” said Plotts. If it is 51 percent likely that a sexual assault occurred, as opposed to 49 percent, then it is treated as if it happened.
He said a few other minor changes have also been made. “Both parties have to be told simultaneously. We’ve learned now that that does not mean at the exact moment, but on the same day.”
Students are encouraged to voice their views and suggestions. For Claire Ballor, a junior English major, “criminal cases of sexual assault need to be treated as a crime.”
Recognizing there are reasons why the police are not always brought into the situation, Ballor suggests that for serious cases police involvement could be beneficial.
”I think that it needs to be treated with a little more severity at this school, and not because of a jump in numbers of sexual assault cases, but just to start treating it for what it is. That it is a crime,” she said. “There is a responsibility on behalf of every single person at this university; it is not just higher-level involvement. That involvement needs to trickle down … to everyone.”
Students who wish to get involved can contact Alex Pellegrino or Alex Lemke. The two are chairing the committee formed to gauge student opinion. While Student Government oversees the committee, its meetings will be open to all students.
The federal government issued a list of recommendations and solutions aimed at reducing assaults. It advises colleges to:
1. Learn about what’s happening on campus through systematic surveys. The federal task force is considering requiring colleges to conduct such surveys in 2016.
2. Promote “bystander intervention,” getting witnesses to step in and help when misconduct arises.
3. Identify trained victim advocates who can provide emergency and ongoing support. The government plans to release a sample reporting and confidentiality protocol, as well as a checklist for an effective sexual conduct policy.
The government will also make enforcement data and other information about sexual assault on campuses available on a new website called NotAlone.gov. The site will give students “a clear explanation of their rights … and a simple description of how to file a complaint” with federal authorities. The report said the information will also “help students wade through often-complicated legal definitions and concepts, and point them toward people who can give them confidential advice — and those who can’t.”
The Department of Education is in the process of setting regulations that will implement the 2013 VAWA amendments. The final regulations are expected in July 2014. Meanwhile, more steps to implement the rules will be completed in 2015, but the White House said schools are expected to make good-faith efforts to meet the new requirements before then.
The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the White House task force on campus sexual assault contributed to this report.