Administrators talk changes to misconduct procedures

Brian Beckwith/Daily
Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center Director Holly Rider-Milkovich speaks at the Sexual Assault Policy Roundtable at the Michigan League on Tuesday. Buy this photo

By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 14, 2015

University administrators sat down with students Monday and Tuesday night to discuss potential changes to the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.

Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, and Patricia Petrowski, associate vice president and deputy general counsel, told students that revisions to the policy will be based on a variety of factors — including comparisons to peer institutions’ policies and suggestions voiced by students, faculty and SAPAC.

“As we’ve been gathering that information, we’ve been thinking about what are some ways we can strengthen the policy and respond to some of the concerns,” Rider-Milkovich said.

The pending changes come two years after the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy was last revised in August 2013.

Rider-Milkovich and Petrowski had already proposed a number of changes to the current policy, which they discussed with students in a round table format.

Under the current policy, either the complainant or the respondent can appeal a case’s outcome after the Office for Institutional Equity reviews the report and the Office of Student Conflict Resolution decides sanctions.

According to Rider-Milkovich, this can render potential respondents and complainants unable to agree upon sanctions because they are not finished disputing evidence — which could lengthen the procedure.

Subsequently, she said, the first and most complex policy change would involve separating the appeals process to allow for objections at both the OIE and OSCR levels, as opposed to appealing them collectively.

In other words, this switch would allow either the complainant or respondent to appeal the findings of the OIE investigation first, and then appeal the sanctions after findings were resolved.

The change would also create two new outlets to field appeals.

OIE appeals would go to a panel of three representatives, made up of two faculty members — one from the Law School — appointed by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and a student representative appointed by the Central Student Government.

This is a change from the current policy, where the existing general appeals panel includes one faculty member appointed by the Faculty Senate, one administrator appointed by the University president and one student appointed by CSG.

Additionally, OSCR appeals would be reviewed by a representative from the Office of the Provost. This measure, Rider-Milkovich said, would allow for an objective voice external from the process to review documents and determine sanctions’ fairness.

“We believe it is important to have an outside perspective because OSCR is crafting the agreement itself,” she said.

Rider-Milkovich added that she hopes the appeals process change will shorten the time frame from reporting misconduct to carrying out the investigation and delivering sanctions. However, she said she recognizes that allowing two opportunities to appeal could have the reverse effect.

“This is our best thinking on a way to create a more authentic experience, but it’s possible that it lengthens the process, which is something that we know is a significant issue,” she said.

Petrowski mentioned that many universities do not separate their appeals system to differentiate case findings from sanctions.

Student attendees responded positively to the change in the process, but voiced concerns about the pending appeals process structure. A main concern was with the CSG’s role in choosing the student representative for the OIE panel.

“I really don’t like that CSG picks the student,” LSA junior Laura Meyer said, adding that she has little trust in CSG or knowledge about what it does.

LSA senior Kathryn Abercrombie, a former CSG representative and a leader in SAPAC, echoed Meyer’s fear that the CSG assembly does not always represent every voice on campus to the fullest extent. She mentioned there could be other areas on campus, such as the Trotter Multicultural Center or Intergroup Relations, from which the OIE panel could draw a student representative.

“I would argue that CSG is not representative of the student body, and that is I think the source of concern with having CSG appoint someone,” Abercrombie said.

A number of students participating in the roundtable talks suggested that the OIE panel adopt an open-call application for the student representative on the panel.

Another change Rider-Milkovich and Petrowski proposed was to make the identity of any witnesses in the case known in reports and to the parties involved.

The current policy protects witness’ identities to make students feel more comfortable coming forward and sharing their stories without fear of retaliation in their various social groups.

Rider-Milkovich and Petrowski proposed naming the identities of witnesses to afford both the respondent and the complainant the best opportunity to defend themselves or prosecute their claims, because they could give more information regarding the accuracy of witness statements and motives.

Rider-Milkovich and Petrowski said this is the current trend for universities that are also undergoing policy revisions. They added that the OIE investigator overseeing a case would have the discretion to determine whether or not to hide the witness identity in cases where he or she believed the witness would be in physical danger otherwise.

Raina LaGrand, a graduate student in the Schools of Social Work and Public Health, said giving an OIE officer the discretion to grant witness anonymity could have the potential to be dangerous — especially given that the stigma surrounding sexual misconduct can vary among racial or cultural social groups.

“I think that the way different communities experience sexual assault on this campus, and protecting complainants or respondents, is drastically different,” LaGrand said.

Another potential change to the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy involves setting strict time limits during the investigative procedure.

Currently, the policy says the procedure aims to be complete 60 days after the report is filed. Rider-Milkovich admitted, however, this time frame is often extended.

“Less often we are able to meet 60 days than we go over 60 days,” she said.

However, Petrowski said she has concerns about the strict timeline, adding that extensions are typically granted for a good reason, such as allowing for the most careful reviewing of documents possible.

"I can tell you as a former litigator it is much, much, much harder to draft a 10 or 15 page brief than it is a 50 page brief if there are a ton of facts,” she said. “You need to be very considerate about the main points you want to get across.”

Rider-Milkovich and Petrowski also proposed separating the appeals procedure from the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy to make each item more understandable. Petrowski added that doing so would also make it easier to adjust the appeals process independently from the policy’s review cycle.

The policy currently posted to the University’s website is 20 pages long and includes a policy statement, section for definitions and appeals the process.

The proposed changes do not currently include revisions to the policy’s definition of consent. Last week, a report published in The Michigan Daily noted a discrepancy between the definition of consent applied during University disciplinary proceedings and the more stringent definition promoted by SAPAC.

Other proposed changes include adding a definition of “retaliation” to the sexual misconduct policy and approaching cases of dating violence, domestic violence and stalking in a non-sexual manner in the same way as allegations of sexual misconduct.