UI Senate weighs in on sex-assault cases

UI Senate weighs in on sex-assault cases

URBANA — A measure that's part of an effort to improve how sexual-assault cases are handled on college campuses has generated opposition from students across the country, and the University of Illinois academic senate weighed in Monday.

The campus senate approved a student-sponsored resolution urging administrators to reject a government recommendation barring students from serving on conduct boards in sexual-assault cases.

The resolution argues that students "provide a critical peer perspective" that faculty, administrators and other staff may lack.

"These boards are not here to find students guilty or not guilty in the sense that the legal system is. What they're determining is whether someone is fit to be in the campus community. It's really important that we have students on these boards," said UI student body President Mitch Dickey, one of four student leaders who met with White House and education officials on the issue last week in Washington, D.C.

In 2011, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights ordered that sexual-violence cases be handled in accordance with gender-discrimination laws under Title IX, the federal civil-rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in education.

Last April, that office issued recommendations for universities to improve their sexual-misconduct procedures under Title IX — such as using closed-circuit television during a hearing so an assault victim does not have to be in the same room with the alleged perpetrator.

In a footnote, the report said a hearing isn't necessarily required in any investigation, and it also discouraged schools from allowing students to serve on hearing boards in cases involving allegations of sexual violence.

The UI's Office for Student Conflict Resolution handled 17 sexual-misconduct cases in 2013-14, which includes rape, sexual harassment and other behaviors, according to interim Director Justin Brown.

Although the Department of Education hasn't given a direct rationale for the move, it appears to be based on the belief that students don't have sufficient training as adjudicators and "are not capable of remaining unbiased," the senate resolution said.

Dickey said there's a concern about conflicts — the potential that a student member of a hearing board might know the perpetrator or the victim. The department cited cases where "students haven't played the most positive role" or the universities didn't take adequate precautions to prevent a conflict, he said.

The same argument could be made about a professor who may have taught a class taken by either student, he said.

As a precaution, some campuses are dismantling hearing committees and appointing a dean to hear cases instead, said student senate Vice President Matt Hill.

"There's so much disbelief (about sexual assault) that survivors don't feel comfortable going forward," Hill said.

The resolution notes that students receive the same training for conduct hearings as faculty and staff, in terms of confidentiality and procedures. It encourages the campus to explore ways to provide more rigorous training for all hearing board members.

Most senators Monday agreed with the spirit of the resolution, but several faculty members worried that not following the recommendation would put the university at risk of being out of compliance with Title IX — which could jeopardize the UI's federal funding.

Dickey said he and others repeatedly posed that question to federal education officials, and they made it clear that the recommendation was not mandatory.

Dean of Students Kenneth Ballom said the campus is updating its procedures to comply with the Education Department's overall guidelines. For example, it's moving toward an investigation process that may not require a hearing so an assault victim doesn't have to testify in front of a large committee, he said. A panel will still determine the sanction, with procedures to protect due process for the accused, he said.

His office is working with the campus legal counsel, the UI's Title IX office and student conduct committees, he said. The goal is to keep students on the hearing boards when they are used, he said.

"We're supportive of students staying on the panels," said Renee Romano, UI vice chancellor for student affairs. "If students are trained as thoroughly as faculty, they can made good decisions."

However, if the recommendations become mandatory, the campus will have to comply, she added.

Dickey signed a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan with more than 75 college student-body presidents nationwide opposing the recommendation, and was selected to travel to Washington to meet with officials last week.

"While we understand and support the good spirit of the recommendation — to ensure well-trained and unbiased participation — we strongly feel that it has significant unintended consequences," the student presidents' letter said.

Students can provide insight during questioning and discussion, and both parties involved in a hearing might perceive the process as being fairer if students are involved in the process, it said.

"At some institutions, a generational gap may still exist with regard to how sexual assault is perceived and where blame is placed," the letter noted.

As an alternative, it suggests baseline training for all members of conduct hearing boards, including: annual mandatory Title IX training for student, faculty and staff adjudicators; new procedures to protect confidentiality of the parties involved; an option for student defendants to choose between a full hearing or an administrative hearing, as Ohio State has done; and an option for the plaintiff to provide testimony to a conduct officer or adviser, in lieu of a full hearing.

The students also plan to pursue the issue legislatively with two Democratic senators working on the Campus Accountability and Safety Act — Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — which is intended to provide more transparency about sexual-assault cases on college campuses.

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