New sexual misconduct policy to go into effect July 1

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 5:20pm

The University of Michigan announced an updated policy on sexual misconduct Tuesday, including changes to the enforced definition of consent, an expansion of what is considered prohibited conduct and the consolidation of sanctioning and appeals procedures. The amendments will be effective July 1.

The new policy, renamed the University of Michigan Policy and Procedures on Student Sexual and Gender-based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence instead of the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy, will be officially updated and available to the public on April 6. A draft of the updated policy was released in September 2015. The policy was last revised in 2013.

The revisions expand the policy’s scope to include gender-based harassment — violence suffered due to gender identity, sexuality and orientation — and intimate partner violence in addition to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Stalking, which was originally encompassed under the label of sexual harassment, will now be addressed as its own category.

Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, said in a joint interview Tuesday with University President Mark Schlissel and Title IX Coordinator Anthony Walesby that the expansions ensure the University’s compliance with federal guidelines.

“It aligns with the Clery Act and Title IX concerns,” she said. “We want these behaviors that students sometimes experience concurrently to fall under the same policy.”

The University is currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces Title IX, over its handling of several sexual misconduct cases.

Walesby noted that the expansion of categories may affect the Office of Institutional Equity’s ability to conduct both a timely and thorough investigation. Both the new and current versions of the policy limit the investigation process to 60 days, a time period chosen to balance considering as much information as possible with timeliness, according to Walesby.

“It could affect case time, but we also want to make sure we’re getting the full picture,” he said.

The revision will also refine definitions of consent in regard to incapacitation and coercion. A Michigan Daily report last year found inconsistencies between SAPAC’s definition of consent and the definition of consent enforced in the University’s policy. Rider-Milkovich said the extended specifications are an attempt to address any ambiguity of consent when students are under the influence of alcohol.

“I think that we did not do a good enough job at defining incapacitation the first time around … We make clear to students that incapacitation is a state greater than mere intoxication,” she said. “And we provide other kinds of guidance. We tell students the best thing to do if one or both parties has been consuming alcohol is to forgo sexual activity.”  

In terms of the restructuring of the sanctioning and appeals process, Rider-Milkovich said it was aimed at improving the efficiency of the process. A new sanctioning board — made up of appointees from Central Student Government, the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President for Student Life — will be charged with reviewing cases in which an individual has been found responsible for misconduct and determining the consequences of the finding. The Office of Student Conflict Resolution, which currently facilitates sanctions through a Resolution Coordinator or a resolution process, will have no official role in the revised policy.

Though students voiced concerns during roundtable talks about whether a CSG appointee on the board would be the best way to be representative of the student body, University President Mark Schlissel said in an interview Tuesday that pursuing other means of naming a student would threaten the integrity and efficiency of the process.

“You could imagine another extreme where you want to be as representative as possible, and you’ve got 20 people on a sanctioning board,” he said. “Confidentiality is very difficult. Arriving at a decision is very challenging; timeliness is harder ... We’re trying to balance lots of things.”  

As well, instead of appeals being reviewed by an internal board as the current policy mandates, the new policy will rely on an external reviewer to assess findings and sanctions if the respondent or complainant chooses to appeal an outcome. Though no one has been chosen to fill the position yet, Schlissel said the third party will most likely be an attorney, and must be an impartial expert on sexual misconduct and the law.

The reports generated during investigations will also see a change under the new policy, which states that they must reveal the identities of all witnesses to both parties. Schlissel said the naming of witnesses will ensure fairness to both parties.

Other modifications to the policy include clearly identifying employees responsible for sharing information on sexual misconduct with the University, providing further detail on how the University shares information with law enforcement and changing the label of “complainant” to “claimant.”

Schlissel and Rider-Milkovich acknowledged the administration faces a significant hurdle in ensuring students are aware of the changes to the policy. A campus climate survey conducted last fall found that though roughly 86 percent of all students know the University has a Student Sexual Misconduct Policy, only 55 percent of students reported receiving training or attending programs on sexual assault prevention and reporting.

Schlissel said the new policy was formed through consulting and guidance from the Department of Education’s OCR and outside experts, as well as internal conversations with students and other community members. Initially slated to be ready before the Winter 2016 semester, conversations with students, looking at policies at other schools and reviewing government materials delayed the process.

Overall, Schlissel said he hopes the revisions will boost student engagement and reporting.    

“This might make people more likely to come forward ... and we hope that’s the case,” he said.