The University’s policies for investigating sexual assault and caring for survivors constitute an important piece of the fight against sexual violence on college campuses. While the University should be commended for the resources it currently offers survivors, those resources aren’t extensive enough. Furthermore, the University’s investigative processes are far too opaque to effectively deal with this grave issue. The University should expand the resources, such as the SANE program, implement new emergency responses and clarify existing investigation methods.
Taking into account the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses, the University should strive to make the health and safety of survivors a top priority. The University offers resources such as Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and Counseling and Psychological Services to help survivors cope with sexual assault, but there are currently few emergency resources offered that address immediate care. Current University and SAPAC protocol recommend that survivors of sexual assault should go to the University Hospital to undergo a medical exam within 96 hours of the incident in order to preserve vital evidence of sexual assault. While SAPAC offers 24-hour support and a crisis hotline through which survivors can request an advocate to accompany them to the emergency room, this is the closest the University comes to an emergency medical response. The University should have an emergency response team within the Division of Public Safety and Security to aid survivors, especially when the timely collection of evidence and rapid medical treatment is vital.
After an assault, survivors often experience trauma or feelings of intimidation, and many may feel embarrassed to discuss the assault with another individual. Having to travel to the University Hospital — a remote location in relation to the majority of the student population — may discourage survivors from seeking help. Although many medical practitioners are certified to care for survivors of sexual assault, a sexual assault nurse examiner receives specific certification and training to best help these unique patients. Near campus, the only SANEs available are at the University Hospital and at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Hospital. However, some universities offer a SANE program on campus, such as Oregon State University’s Student Health Services. In order to provide more comprehensive care to students, the University of Michigan should consider creating a more centralized clinic — or at least an intermediary location for the time being — designed to specifically treat and help survivors.
Since February, the University has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for a possible Title IX violation in which a student claimed to be sexually harassed and the school “failed to promptly and equitably respond to complaints.” This investigation makes it clear that there are questions about the efficacy of the University’s protocol for investigating these situations and little information has been made available to students about this investigation process. The entirety of this process needs to be made clearer, from where students should go directly after an incident to the subsequent steps the University takes in investigating.
The difficulty in proving that a sexual assault has occurred is one potential barrier to coming to a resolution in a potential investigation. Establishing whether or not consent was given is also blurred in situations in which alcohol is consumed by both parties. Such inconsistencies make it difficult to come to a decision when reconstructing the events.
The University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy, which is posted online, states that the Title IX coordinator is solely responsible for “the final decision on whether, how and to what extent the University will conduct an investigation.” And if the complainant requests confidentiality or that there be no investigation, a panel consisting of the Title IX coordinator and “staff members” will decide possible courses of action. It is unclear exactly who sits on this panel; the policy states only that the interests of “the University, law enforcement, survivors of sexual misconduct, persons accused of sexual misconduct and/or other offices as deemed necessary and appropriate under the circumstances” are to be represented on the panel. The University should endeavor to make public more information about the steps of its investigative process to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the confidentiality of the survivors of sexual assault. Only then can the public hold both investigators and the investigative process accountable.
Better educating the community on investigative practices and thereby opening these practices to scrutiny would give the University a valuable opportunity to reassess its strategies with regard to sexual assault. A clear, specific and well-enforced investigative protocol would only serve to help survivors of sexual assault by more effectively holding offenders accountable. Such a protocol also has the potential to facilitate necessary improvement of campus culture surrounding sexual assault.
While the University can work to address internal problems regarding sexual assault investigation, the U.S. Department of Education must work to consistently enforce Title IX. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights must impose real penalties on universities for the mishandling of sexual assault cases. Though the current consequences for Title IX violations range from rewriting policies to staff turnover, no college or university has endured the highest penalty of losing funding. The Department of Education, and the federal government as a whole, must work in conjunction with institutions of higher education to provide a better environment for sexual assault survivors and overall awareness of the issue of sexual assault.