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Content warning: This article references allegations of sexual misconduct

Students and employees at the University of Michigan seeking restorative justice avenues after reporting sexual misconduct have an option available to them. 

Called “adaptable resolutions,” these processes are the restorative counterpart to the more common post-reporting route of investigations, which tend to focus on whether accused parties violated U-M policy. Instead, adaptable resolutions, focus on the needs of those who were harmed, regardless of whether a University policy has been violated, and — so long as both parties willingly participate in the process — can involve a variety of steps according to what the survivor requests. 

One thing adaptable and investigative resolutions have in common is they both require, at various stages, the approval of the University’s Title IX Coordinator Elizabeth Seney. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Seney said adaptable resolutions were created to expand the options available to those who report misconduct. 

“It is another pathway, in addition to the more … commonly known and understood and more traditional route of an investigation,” Seney said. “They have different structures, different goals, different focuses.”

Adaptable resolutions were offered by the University as early as 2013. At that point, they were often referred to as “alternative resolution” and “informal resolution” until 2018. 

But, it wasn’t until 2019, the same year the University’s interim sexual misconduct policy took effect, that the University began to see a significant uptick in the number of individuals reporting who opted for an adaptable resolution. While in prior years no more than one case resulted in an adaptable resolution, the fiscal year 2018 saw 12 cases, and 2019 saw 10.

Compared with 16 investigative resolutions in 2018 and 15 in 2019 — alongside the hundreds of reports addressed through other University channels such as the Office for Institutional Equity’s review panel — adaptable resolutions are not the most common option among those who report sexual misconduct.

Carrie Landrum, the assistant director of adaptable resolutions at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, said these processes have, however, gained traction in the past several years during her tenure at the University. Landrum is optimistic they will continue to grow, especially as awareness of restorative justice on campus expands.

“When I first started facilitating restorative practices in 2007, very few community members had ever heard of restorative justice,” Landrum said. “Now it’s very common that I’m meeting with students who have already heard about restorative justice before they meet with me. For some cases, the reason why they wanted to request adaptable resolution was because they believe in restorative justice.”

“We can do that”: What adaptable resolutions can look like

Landrum received training in restorative practices and dispute resolution. A self-described “peacebuilder,” she’s been facilitating restorative processes at the University for over a decade.

Landrum said the core difference between adaptable resolutions and investigations lies within the path of justice each follows, as well as who to focus on.

“A carceral or legal system tends to ask what rule or law was broken, who broke it and what should be done to them,” Landrum said. “Restorative justice asks who was harmed and how, and how can that harm be repaired.”

In adhering to a model of restorative justice, adaptable resolutions focus on the needs and healing of those who report sexual misconduct. That means individuals opting for an adaptable resolution have the opportunity to request a number of restorative justice practices — including, but not limited to, requesting that the person that caused them harm go through training, delivering impact statements and requesting their alleged perpetrator take time away from campus —  as part of their healing process. 

An adaptable resolution coordinator from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution serves as a mediator between the survivor and their alleged perpetrator.

Does that mean individuals request their alleged perpetrator undergo consent education? Or a direct meeting with their alleged perpetrator? Or that boundaries be set in place around communication with their alleged perpetrator? 

“We can do that,” Landrum said in response to all of the above.

There are, however, still some practical limitations to what adaptable resolutions can involve, seeing as every step must be approved by the current Title IX Coordinator. Seney gave examples of cases where she might deny someone’s request during an adaptable resolution process, including cases in which one of the parties involved faces a risk of harm.

“There could be instances where it doesn’t appear that one or both parties are really making a voluntary or free and uncoerced decision to participate in that process, or where it appears that there may be a risk of further harm or intimate partner violence on through the process,” Seney said. “In which case, even if the parties were appearing to want to participate in it, I might not approve it as the Title IX Coordinator,” Seney said.

Individuals also retain the choice to switch from an adaptable resolution to an investigation (or vice versa), even after initially electing one or the other. With adaptable resolutions specifically, individuals can stop the process at any time.

“If at any time, for any reason whatsoever, if they’d like to end the process, they can do so with no explanations or approval,” Landrum said. “They (can) just simply stop, and they can request an investigative resolution process at that time.”

Students who stop their adaptable resolutions do not have to opt for investigations instead. They can also opt for “other remedies,” including training and other educational measures, or choose not to continue with any University-sponsored procedure at all.

“Something I didn’t expect I could have”: One student’s experience with an adaptable resolution

Elizabeth, a recent LSA graduate of the University who prefers to go by her first name out of privacy concerns, underwent an adaptable resolution process after reporting she was allegedly raped by another student in 2019.

Elizabeth said overall, the process was as challenging as it was worthwhile.

“One of the things that I was not expecting was (that) it was a lot harder mentally than I expected it to be,” Elizabeth said. “It took a lot of emotional capacity from me. But I will say that the peace that I have now that it’s completed is something I didn’t expect I could have.”

Elizabeth reported a sexual assault in the winter semester of 2019. While under previous policies, adaptable resolutions were not available in instances of assault, the University’s interim sexual misconduct policy expanded the availability of this option to any individual, regardless of the nature of the misconduct they are reporting. 

What drew Elizabeth to the process at the outset was that she wasn’t focused on punishment for her alleged perpetrator, she said.

“At that time, I sympathized quite strongly with my perpetrator,” Elizabeth said. “I wasn’t in a place where I wanted him to get in trouble. From what I’d read over the University’s official policies on student conduct, it looked like the adaptable resolution was something that he could be held accountable but not necessarily punished for, which was something I was looking for.”

In addition to seeking a non-punitive form of accountability, Elizabeth was concerned that her alleged perpetrator would be less cooperative with an investigation, which also drove her toward an adaptable resolution. 

According to Elizabeth, this cooperation from her alleged perpetrator played out in her experience with the adaptable resolution. Working closely with the adaptable resolution facilitator — who for Elizabeth’s case, was Landrum — she built up the specifics of the process up “from her imagination.” That included a series of requests that her perpetrator engage in educational sessions which included information on healthy alcohol usage, toxic masculinity and consent. Her perpetrator complied with all of the requests.

Their adaptable resolution concluded with a facilitated circle, which is a common restorative justice practice at the University that brings together the responsible parties, impacted parties, any other affected parties and facilitators to discuss harmful actions and fulfill needs of all of those involved. 

Elizabeth acknowledged that despite how smoothly her own experience went, her alleged perpetrator “could have said no” to anything she requested. She said this underscored the importance of the facilitator in assessing the needs of both parties involved along the way.

“If there were things that he needed of me, like framing for why he was doing any of this, she requested that of me,” Elizabeth said.

The future of adaptable resolutions

As of now, adaptable resolutions are only offered for cases in which the alleged perpetrator is a student. This difference stems from the separate policies prescribed for University student and employee sexual misconduct prior to August 2020, when an umbrella policy for all University affiliates took effect.

Future expansion of the availability of adaptable resolutions depends partially on internal matters, such as community need as well as University policy. But it also depends on federal policy, according to Landrum.

Under the Obama administration, then-Vice President Joe Biden helped introduce new, more comprehensive guidelines on Title IX compliance across federally funded schools in what is commonly referred to as a “Dear Colleague Letter.”

The Trump administration rolled back these guidelines, narrowing the definition of sexual harassment, for example, and controversially mandating live hearings with cross-examinations of complainants. Biden is anticipated to restore policies back to their pre-Trump form now that he is president.

Landrum said she’s hopeful that the accessibility of adaptable resolution will improve under the Biden administration, specifically by waiving the requirement that students file a formal complaint prior to initiating an adaptable resolution.

“I think that (Biden’s) administration may change the landscape, again, as the Trump administration did, and as the Obama administration did,” Landrum said.

Seney emphasized that community input will also dictate the future of adaptable resolutions. She alluded to a new panel that will consist of University students, faculty and staff.

Part of the panel’s charge involves disseminating information about University sexual misconduct policy and procedure to the broader community, and Seney said spreading awareness of options like adaptable resolutions are part of this work.

“I’m hopeful that that will be a place to hear feedback from the community and that it also might be a place to share information out, and maybe help increase the awareness and information around the fact that adaptable resolution exists in the student procedures, and that what it really means and what it is,” Seney said.

Landrum said that, especially in the divisive times America is facing, she hopes the University community continues to turn its attention toward all pathways to justice, including those that the adaptable resolutions deploy.

“We’re so polarized nationally,” Landrum said. “We’ve got all sorts of pandemics of racism and everything else. We really could use more attention and more assistance, I think, in co-creating our pathways to peace and justice.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu