Revised sexual misconduct policy redefines gender-based harassment, sanctioning process

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 4:12pm

The University of Michigan is updating their policy and procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence in accordance with the policy’s annual review. E. Royster Harper, vice president for Student Life, announced the policy changes via email to students and faculty Thursday.

According to the email, the University is required to hold the annual review to consider existing policies and make revisions as needed. The University and representatives from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Office for Institutional Equity, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel conducted the review.

The definition of gender-based harassment will be changed to include the resolution of harassment cases that intersect with other federally protected identities such as race, national origin, disability or veteran status. The definition of intimate partner violence has been revised as well to emphasize that the University believes emotional abuse is a reoccurring behavior and not an isolated incident.

In an effort to improve the sanctioning process, cases that used to be heard by a voluntary board of OIE and OSCR-trained faculty, staff and student representatives will now be heard by professional OSCR staff. This approach will reportedly ensure professionals with significant training will be responsible for determining proper sanctions.

Rackham student Kamaria Porter, who currently serves on the sanctioning board, wrote in an email she understood the volunteer board may have been an unsustainable process due to competing schedules and the large time commitment of case review sessions.

“Being on the board is a huge, unpaid time commitment," Porter wrote. “It includes reading sometimes hundreds of pages, deliberating for hours, and follow up emails. In addition, we had an 8 hour training. Sometimes things come up and board members can’t be available. That model doesn’t seem sustainable in terms of securing volunteers who are already deeply involved in a professional job, serving as faculty, or pursuing a degree full time.   

Finally, the option of mediation between an accuser and the respondent is now available in cases of non-penetrative sexual assault.

Last week, OIE released its annual report on prohibited student conduct, which found sexual misconduct reports increased by 40 percent from 2016.

In addition to Harper’s email, the University also released a statement in the University Record. Pamela Heatile, the University’s Title IX coordinator and senior director of OIE, said these policy revisions both make the document more comprehensible and assist in the resolution of gender and sexual misconduct cases.

“We are confident that these changes will make the policy and procedures clearer and easier to understand, while also addressing some important changes that are significant to the adjudication of these cases,” Heatlie said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, Title IX states, “No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In accordance with Title IX, any applicable institution is required to hold a self-evaluation as a guarantee that the institution is actively working to eliminate gender-based discrimination.

In the past, the University has been investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of a sexual misconduct case in 2014. The University was later criticized by students for failing to release reports of the investigation.

In collaboration with the Obama administration, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities in 2011 as a commitment to Title IX, which obligated universities to respond to sexual assault claims promptly. However, activists now fear much of the progress which was accomplished under former President Obama will be reversed by current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration.

Guidelines that the Obama administration proposed for Title IX encouraged a “preponderance of evidence” in campus sexual assault cases, which necessitates a lower burden of proof to find a student guilty of sexual assault. Interim direction from the DeVos-led agency now suggests campuses use either a preponderence of evidence or the higher standard of clear and convincing. 

According to the Record, the University’s policy changes were generated in part because of the new guidelines released from the DOE. The DOE has stated mediation can be used as an alternative form of resolution for sexual assault cases if both the claimant and respondent as well as their University’s Title IX coordinator agree this process would be appropriate.

OSCR Director Erik Wessel wrote in an email statement the University continues to strive to improve their policies on handling sexual and gender-based harassment. He emphasized the team took student feedback into consideration to review the policies and that OSCR is continuing the process of listening to students. According to Wessel, changes in how the University sanctions students who violate their policies will ensure trained professionals are doing the decision making rather than volunteers who receive less training.

“The change in the sanctioning responsibility will align the sanctioning phase of the process with the investigation and appeals phases by relying more fully on existing expertise, in this case within the Office of Student Conflict Resolution,” Wessel wrote.

In regard to changing the working definitions the University uses in defining gender-based harassment and intimate partner violence, Wessel said the team determined a more sophisticated definition was needed to better enforce their policies. He also stated responses to the new guidelines are the combined efforts of OSCR and the Title IX coordinator.

“We have learned through the first year of implementation that a more nuanced definition became necessary to clarify the process where allegations of gender-based harassment intersect with another protected class,” Wessel wrote.“These circumstances require a coordinated response between the Title IX coordinator and the Office of Student Conflict Resolution to most effectively utilize our respective policies and procedures to eliminate the behavior, remedy the harm and prevent its recurrence”

The revisions outlined in the new policy will take effect Feb. 7.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated who the policy applies to.