Sexual misconduct policy change may lead to increase in number of investigations

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 3:11pm

Amid other impacts of a planned new policy on student sexual misconduct, University of Michigan administrators said they are expecting the changes will prompt the number of Title IX cases to increase.

Up until this July, all Title IX investigations into instances of sexual misconduct at the University will be governed by regulations laid out in the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy. After that, the University will adopt the University of Michigan Policy and Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence.

The new policy,  announced last Tuesday, makes several changes, including expanding to include gender-based harassment — violence suffered due to gender identity, sexuality or orientation — and intimate partner violence. It also modifies the definition of consent and the scope of prohibited conduct, as well as restructuring the sanctioning and appeals process.

Anthony Walesby, the University’s Title IX coordinator, wrote in an e-mail interview that the Office of Institutional Equity — the office responsible for processing sexual misconduct complaints — largely anticipates the rise in cases because of the inclusion of gender-based harassment and intimate partner violence.

The revisions come after the release of OIE’s annual sexual misconduct report in January, which showed that though the number of reports increased by 33 percent from 2014 to 2015, the number of cases investigated by OIE stayed the same. According to the report, 29 of the 172 cases OIE received in 2015 were investigated, 66 were referred to the Review Panel and 78 did not fall within the scope of the policy.

Walesby wrote that the broadened scope of the new policy aims to create an environment in which more students feel comfortable to report such experiences.

“With the additional definitions of prohibited conduct in the policy, our hope is that students will come forward to express concerns,” he wrote.

In a February meeting with the Daily, E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, expressed concern about potential discourse that stigmatizes and dismisses sexual misconduct, as evidenced by campus climate surveys showing that many students may not report sexual assault. She said she thought education, training and transparency are key to combating such unawareness.

In a 2015 campus climate survey, only 6.3 percent of students considered themselves “very likely” to report an incident of sexual assault to OIE, while 12.8 percent reported themselves to be “somewhat likely” to do so. The survey found 22.5 percent of female students have experienced sexual assault during their time at the University.

“That’s what I saw in the survey, a kind of normalizing of inappropriate behavior, and we have to interrupt that,” Harper said. “I think we reshape our thinking about the issue.”

LSA senior Laura Meyer, volunteer co-coordinator for the Networking, Publicity and Activism Program at SAPAC, said she thought the revision was a natural addition to the current policy.

“I think it’s important to have it in the policy because a lot of violence based on gender or on perceived gender or perceived sexual identity or sexuality, occurs at the same time or concurrently with sexual misconduct or sexual violence,” Meyer said. “And so I think it’s really important to have it together.”

However, she noted that she had several concerns about how changes in the new policy could impact reporting. She pointed in particular to a “Sexual History of the Parties” clause, which allows prior sexual history to be considered when there was a “prior or ongoing relationship between the Claimant and Respondent” or “to establish a pattern or practice of conduct similar in nature by the respondent,” as concerning.

According to the clause, the sexual history will never be considered evidence, but could be used in certain limited number of cases to assess the nature of communication between both the claimant and respondent, according to the policy, and establish intent or motive.

Meyer said she thought that kind of clause is the product of an even larger, underlying issue — how consent is defined — noting that she would like to see a definition of consent that relies on “verbal, enthusiastic, affirmative, sober, coercion-free consent” instead of one that also requires trying to understand body language as well.

“My concern with that is that the whole concept of using that sexual history is based on what I think is a very weak definition of consent,” she said.

The updated policy modifies the enforced definition of consent to clarify instances of incapacitation and coercion, and also aims to increase awareness and thus reporting on campus through changing how another issue, stalking, is treated. While it was also prohibited in the previous policy, it will now be listed as a separate category.

Walesby wrote that OIE has reviewed several instances of stalking that related to Title IX since the 2011 interim policy, with the Office of Student Conflict Resolution addressing other cases that did not violate federal guidelines. He wrote that by addressing stalking as a distinct category, OIE hopes to highlight the issue.

“It's meant to help educate our campus and remind our community that stalking is prohibited by university policy,” he wrote.

In an interview with the Daily last week, University President Mark Schlissel said he hopes to engage the entire campus in creating reform around the issue.

“Our overarching goal is to make campus as safe as possible,” he said.