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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ student conduct procedures to change

Title IX guidance to impact sexual assault regulations

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: Front Page

Brandeis will change its student conduct process for sexual assault cases following new Title IX guidance from the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. But it is unlikely the university will create a new, separate grievance process specifically for sexual assault cases, Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said.

“Our students are at the top of the pile when it comes to saying they feel safe on this campus,” Sawyer said during an interview in his office this week. “We didn’t need a letter from Title IX to tell us to do this.”

Other universities are considering creating a new grievance process for sexual assault separate from handling other cases of student misconduct, Sawyer said. Brandeis will review its procedures and the Rights and Responsibilities handbook during the summer to determine what it should change because of the Title IX guidance.

Universities can use student disciplinary hearings to address sexual assault complaints and do not need a separate grievance process, but the school’s Title IX coordinator must review the procedures to ensure they comply with Title IX, according to the guidance sent to school administrators from the Office for Civil Rights on April 4.

Effective immediately, as required in the guidance, Brandeis will shift its standard of proof for internal hearings on sexual assault from a “clear and convincing standard” to “preponderance of the evidence” standard, a lesser burden of proof, Sawyer said.

“What changes are the instructions to the board and how they are able to determine the outcome,” Sawyer said.

The university will also amend its procedures during the summer so that students are no longer required to confront one another during hearings.

“OCR strongly discourages schools from allowing the parties personally to question or cross-examine each other during the hearing,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letter. “Allowing an alleged perpetrator to question an alleged victim directly may be traumatic or intimidating, thereby possibly escalating or perpetuating a hostile environment.”

From 2007 to 2009, there were three reported “forcible sex offenses” at Brandeis, according to data published in fall 2010 from Public Safety. Nationally, nearly one in five female and one in 20 male undergraduate college students will become a victim of a sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, according to data from the Office for Civil Rights.

Title IX has made many national headlines this spring, with the Department of Education investigating both Yale University and Harvard Law School for complaints alleging that school policies on sexual harassment and sexual assault violate federal law under Title IX.

“The situations at Yale and Harvard Law provide an impetus for us to review our own policies and procedures,” Vice President for Human Resources and Brandeis’ Title IX coordinator Scot Bemis wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot. “While we are confident that our policies fully comply with current law, we will use these incidents to reflect upon our current practices and see if there are any take-aways we can learn from them.”

In the guidance, OCR reminded schools that they must inform all students and employees about the role of the university’s Title IX coordinator.

Bemis said that in addition to other roles, he oversees complaints from students, staff and faculty regarding harassment. The student judicial system manages cases where the alleged offender is a student and the Office of Human Resources manages cases where the alleged offender is a university employee.

Bemis said that although his office has had many contacts since academic year 2008, it has only reviewed one case in a “formal complaint and investigation.”

From 2008 to 2010, according to data from the Student Rights and Community Standards website, there were three cases of sexual misconduct or assault, one of which the student conduct board accepted to hear.

The guidance letter from OCR reminded any school receiving federal funding that sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and thus requires specific university regulations to prevent it.

Even if a victim or third party does not file a complaint, universities that learn of possible sexual harassment must order a Title IX investigation, independent of a local or state run criminal investigation, the guidance said.

Brandeis deals with alleged violations of Rights and Responsibilities through “the student conduct process independent of any ongoing criminal matter” Senior Vice President for Communications Andrew Gully wrote in an e-mail earlier this month.

“Even if the student doesn’t want to pursue a judicial action on it, there’s a requirement that the school does whatever possible to remove the hostile environment out of the situation,” Sawyer said.

Under Section 22 of Rights and Responsibilities, Sawyer, as dean of student life, has the power to enact an emergency suspension separate from other judicial action.

“It’s for anytime we believe the accused student is an imminent danger to the community,” Sawyer said. “[But] for me to interrupt a student’s right to be on this campus, I have to be very careful.”

Caitlin Fay ’12, coordinator of Students Talking About Relationships (S.T.A.R), said Brandeis’ has a strong support system for victims of sexual assault, but that ultimately it is the attitudes of students and not administrators who can best prevent sexual assaults.

“No matter how many people you put on the administration, ultimately what needs to happen is that victims…need to feel like they have support in their community,” Fay said in a phone interview Thursday. “[Often] victims and survivors somehow feel implicated in the fault.”

Brandeis provides students who are victims of sexual assault with many resources and protections against retaliation, Bemis wrote.

As a primary precaution, Brandeis makes every effort to keep the investigation “investigation as confidential as possible.”

After explaining that Brandeis does not allow retaliation in any form, Bemis wrote that “the investigator will stay in contact with the complainant throughout the process and even after the process has ended to make sure that no retaliation occurs.”

One of the steps that Brandeis takes is that university police officers will transport students to a local hospital or police station in an unmarked vehicle in order to prevent drawing attention to the victim, Fay said.

Fay also said that many people are unclear about the definitions of sexual assault.

“A lot of people don’t actually know what sexual assault means or what it encompasses,” she said.

Section 3.1 of Rights and Responsibilities defines sexual misconduct.

“Sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of each student involved may be considered sexual misconduct. Consent must be clearly communicated, mutual, non-coercive, and given free of force or threat of force.”