By Austen Hufford, Online Editor
Published September 2, 2013
The University has adopted a new policy for how it responds to student sexual-misconduct allegations, transitioning from a complainant-driven model to one driven by University investigators.
Per the policy, the University has assumed the burden of internally investigating all allegations of student sexual misconduct, which includes allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. The policy doesn't deal with the criminal repercussions that result from law enforcement investigations, which are outlined in federal, state and local laws.
A 2011 Department of Education mandate clarified that Title IX, the federal anti-sex discrimination statute, obligates universities to actively investigate sexual misconduct allegations. In response, the University reviewed its sexual misconduct allegation policies and implemented an interim policy in August 2011.
The newly effective final policy follows fine-tuning process over the last two years, which brought together the directors of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Office of Institutional Equity, the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center and a staff member in the Office of the General Counsel. In addition to discussions at several community forums, survivors of sexual assault and other people who were impacted by the previous policy were also consulted.
The policy also instructs the Title IX coordinator, the person who ensures the University follows the mandate's regulations, to notify law enforcement of potential criminal sexual misconduct allegations. This may prevent situations where investigators know about criminal misconduct allegations but do not inform police. This seemingly occurred recently when reports of sexual misconduct at the Zaragon Place apartments were not conveyed to University police until a third student came forward making accusations against the suspect in two previous assaults.
The new policy clarifies that only three University divisions — SAPAC, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Office of Ombuds — offer full confidentiality to students who report misconduct. It states that students should assume that reports made to any other University official will be shared with the Title IX coordinator and investigated following the new procedure.
Non-confidential sources include professors and residential advisers. This has raised some concern over whether survivors could unknowingly begin an investigation during the course of a private conversation.
SAPAC Director Holly Rider-Milkovich said first-year students are informed multiple times about confidential and non-confidential locations.
“Many times students have trust relationships with people who are in non-confidential locations and chose to share their information with them,” Milkovch said. “And we want for that to happen because we want students to share their information in a place where they feel safe but we hope always that that is an informed choice.”
Once allegations are made, the first step is to provide the survivor with support services, like a SAPAC advocate, per the new policy. Next, the University provides an assessment to determine if any temporary intervention is needed, such as if the accuser and the accused share classes or live in the same residence hall.
Two employees in the Office of Institutional Equity, which is responsible for investigating civil-rights abuses at the University, have been assigned to investigate all sexual misconduct allegations.
The policy also indicates that no party has an obligation to meet with the investigators, and can choose not to cooperate with an investigation. In cases when the survivor does not want to meet with investigators, a special review panel will meet to determine if the investigation will continue.
The panel is charged finding a balance between survivor choice and campus safety, and the Title IX coordinator having the final say on the future of the investigation. In many cases, because of the nature of the sexual misconduct, an investigation cannot continue without the cooperation of the survivor.
Title IX Coordinator Anthony Walesby, associate vice provost and senior director of OIE, explained that in a typical investigation, OIE staff meet separately with the complainant and accused.
“There’s never this back and forth; no one’s cross examining,” Walesby said. “We ask questions. We ask follow up questions based on the information we have, but you never have to worry about being in the same room as the person you are accusing and vice versa.”
Law enforcement investigations and interviews are independent of OIE activities, but Walesby said UMPD and investigators frequently share information.
When determining guilt, OIE investigators will use a lower standard of proof. Known as preponderance of the evidence, the standard declares that guilt is determined if there’s enough evidence to suggest a complaint is more likely true than not.
The final report is then given to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, where consequences can include probation, suspension and other sanctions. OSCR also coordinates efforts to communities affected by misconduct.
The differences between the old policy and the interim policy have already resulted in a significant increase in the number of sexual misconduct cases reported to the University. During the 2010-2011 academic year, three cases of sexual misconduct were reported to the University, but in 2011-2012, there were 62 cases of sexual misconduct investigated under the interim policy.
Barbara Niess-May, the executive director of the Safe House Center, a survivor advocacy and support group that serves Washtenaw County, said the new policy is important because sexual assaults are “a sorely underreported crime.”
However, Niess-May pointed out that proper enforcement and practice must supplement written policy.
“People who commit sexual assault and domestic violence need to be held accountable. That is the only way that sexual assault and domestic violence will end,” Niess-May said. “People who are committing sexual assault and domestic violence don’t actually believe they are doing something wrong until they are held accountable for their actions.”