Seeking to gather input on how the University addresses sexual assault on campus, students and Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center officials gathered in the Michigan Union on Friday for a roundtable discussion. The forum focused on proposed updates to the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.
A series of similar roundtable discussions are scheduled through Nov. 3 and SAPAC Director Holly Rider-Milkovich said she has already recognized potential improvements to the draft since the sessions began earlier this month.
“We are learning from students every single time we do one of these roundtables,” Rider-Milkovich said. “We heard tonight, for example, that we should make clear on the policy who is responsible for ensuring that sanctions are enforced. That’s a really important point, and that is not a point we have heard from others. That’s just one example and we have those examples for every single roundtable we’ve done.”
The roundtables are the second of three stages Rider-Milkovich said are in the works before a new policy on student sexual misconduct rolls out next semester, as part of a process that first began when the policy was last revised in 2013.
In November 2014, the University began collecting feedback from the administration and external experts on sexual misconduct policies on campuses, as well as reviewing how other schools around the country were addressing the issue.
A University survey released in June indicated that 22.5 percent of female undergraduates experienced sexual assault within the past year. A similar survey conducted at 28 research universities by the Association of American Universities, released in September, showed about 30 percent of undergraduate women at the University reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation. That’s almost 7 percent above the national average.
The University is now considering revisions to the 2013 policy, with a draft of a new sexual misconduct policy open to student input — an opportunity that students have already taken advantage of more than during past reviews. Rider-Milkovich said while only 70 students responded to an online feedback form during the last update to the policy, this year more than 225 people have already responded in the three weeks it has been online. The form will remain open until Nov. 6.
During Thursday’s discussion, attendees raised concerns about several definitions in the policy relating to ability to give consent.
The current proposed draft does not set to change the definition of consent, but it does propose changing the definition of coercion, force and incapacitation, the former of which was a main focus of discussion.
The proposed definition for incapacitation reads, “A person who is Incapacitated cannot Consent to sexual activity. A person is Incapacitated if they are asleep, unconscious, intermittently conscious, unaware that sexual contact is occurring, or lack the physical and/or mental ability to make informed, rational judgements. Incapacitation may result from the consumption of alcohol or other drugs. Where alcohol or drug use is involved, Incapacitation is a state beyond intoxication, inebriation, impairment in judgement or ‘drunkenness.’ ”
Attendees said they believed the current draft definition does not specify clearly enough the amount of drinks it takes to be incapacitated and thus unable to provide consent.
Patty Petrowski, associate vice president and deputy general counsel for the University, offered a second potential definition in response to the concerns.
“A person who is incapacitated is unable to temporarily or permanently give consent because of mental or physical helplessness, sleep, unconsciousness or lack of awareness that sexual activity is taking place,” she said. “A person may be incapacitated as a result of the consumption of alcohol or other drugs, or due to a temporary or permanent physical or mental health issue.”
Several attendees were more responsive to the second definition. LSA senior Anna Forringer-Beal, volunteer at SAPAC and Relationship Remix facilitator, said a question often brought up is how much alcohol is too much alcohol.
“We always get people questioning, ‘Well what if one person had, like, a drink and they’re totally fine. Does that mean they can’t give consent?’” Forringer-Beal said. “I think the distinction on that sliding scale is so important, and I think that it’s really great that you’re taking into account what’s going on in terms of how alcohol affects people differently.”
Rider-Milkovich said it was a difficult issue to put into words. In particular, she said the hardest cases to handle regarding incapacitation are ones in which the victim appears lucid but is in fact very intoxicated.
“That’s one of the most difficult situations,” Rider-Milkovich said. “When someone is in total blackout but operating normally, and especially when we’re looking at the test of did the respondent know? Or should the respondent reasonably have known?”
When the topic was revisited at the end of the discussion, LSA senior Laura Meyer made a suggestion to help clarify the definition of drunk.
“You know how the Inuit have like 200 words for snow? I feel like college students have 200 words for when they’re drunk,” Meyer said. “Maybe using other words like tipsy or buzzed, and beyond buzzed or beyond tipsy.”
Several other draft changes to the policy, including improving interim measures to protect parties in an investigation, increasing academic support for survivors, deciding who should choose the student who would be on the advisory board and whether or not to identify witnesses in cases were also discussed Thursday.
LSA senior Fabiana Diaz said she would like to see the creation of a position to deal specifically with student needs while a case is still being processed and sanctions haven’t been decided.
For example, Diaz said, under the current situation, students living in the same dorm as an alleged assailant have to inform University Housing if they want to change their living situation, who then contacts someone else and so on, drawing out the process.
“It’s not just like you contact somebody and I think that’s frustrating for the survivor — it’s like we’re going in circles to make sure these things are actually enforced,” Diaz said.
Rider-Milkovich agreed with Diaz and suggested following a model other campuses use of assigning one person to work with the survivor of a sexual assault throughout the entire process instead of having to go to several different contact offices to address different issues.
The suggestion found favor with the room, with several people verbally responding yes and others clapping in result.