Since the U.S. Department of Education and its office issued the “Dear Colleague” letter on April 4, 2011, Trinity University and many institutions of higher education across the nation have been in a process of reevaluation and discussion over the ways in which administrations reports, investigates and generally handles sexual assaults within a campus environment.
Over the summer, the subject of sexual assault gained national discussion. In particular, the Obama Administration has created task forces to specifically address student sexual assault, and the U.S. Department of Education released a list of institutions with open Title IX sexual violence investigations regarding complaints and compliance issues on May 1, 2014. Additionally, national news coverage, such as the May 26 article “Rape: The Crisis in Higher Education” in TIME, has roused questions on consent, substance use, reporting and other campus-relevant aspects of sexual violence.
“It’s always been an issue on college campuses. It’s always going to be an issue in society, but I think there are things about it that have made it worse,” said Sheryl Tynes, associate vice president for academic affairs. “I think the cultural backdrop that you all see day in and day out changes people’s perceptions of what is normal and what is ok and I think some of the drugs that are available have really changed the landscape.”
According to Tynes, campuses face a slew of important challenges when it comes to sexual assault, including encouraging reports, engaging with men in prevention, confidentiality, substance use and media representations of sex.
“As a sociologist who studies media and culture, I just think some of the media images are outliers in a lot of ways and fairly twisted images of how it works. I think it must be confusing”¦It’s like why was this not ok, but this is what I am seeing in the media? I just think that it’s not normal. Then you get involved with a real female or real male and it’s just like it’s not ok,” Tynes said. “I think that’s what’s changed in the last couple of decades. From my vantage point, those limits keep getting pushed.”
Amidst a surge of student and community attention last spring, including a Sexual Assault Town Hall last February, Trinity began a review of its policy, procedures and information on sexual harassment, assault and exploitation which continued over the summer and into this fall semester.
“There are a couple aims in revising the policy: one is to make sure that it makes sense from a procedural and a policy standpoint, another is to make sure that it makes sense for our students and our campus and then the other is to make sure that it is compliant,” said David Tuttle, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “Generally people seemed to feel that it was fairly comprehensive, fairly clear and then there were some suggestions that I wrote into the policy that made sense.”
After a period of faculty, staff and student feedback, the updated policy was reviewed by Tuttle and university legal counsel, then sent to the standards committee of students, faculty and staff for approval. It was released to the Trinity community and put online on Friday, Sept. 5.
According to Melissa Flowers, assistant director for residential education, the updated policy has more explicit outlines, including deciphering different levels of sexual misconduct, as well as investigation and reporting procedures.
“I certainly think [having an explicit policy] assists the entire process from both perspective”” both the accused and the accuser””to have things that are a bit more black and white and less gray area,” Flowers said. “And it assists the administrators who are organizing it to have some structure so that each case doesn’t look [to be handled] different, and it doesn’t seem that there are any biases or anything like that.”
Previously, the reporting process””whether to administrators or law enforcement””contained overlap between the two modes of investigation. However, according to Tuttle, the new investigative procedure separates the two processes.
“Accused students were getting read their rights when the accusing students never had any intention of taking the case through a law enforcement channel, so it was confusing to them and then it got confusing with their records. So about ten months ago we decided “”with some advice from our consultant””to separate the channels so that it would be very clear,” Tuttle said. “If somebody wants to go the law enforcement route, they should file a report with TUPD, but if they don’t, they should do a report with the student affairs staff, but they could do both, either or neither.
As outlined in the policy, confidentiality also varies between members of the community. For example, some Trinity faculty, staff and students who are viewed as “responsible”””often through their job title””have a duty to act on reports heard by students. This includes the president, vice presidents, ResLife staff and TUPD. Whereas other members of the community, such as the chaplain, Rape Crisis center advocate, counselor or health service employee possess rights to full confidentiality in the case of a report. According to Tuttle, the majority of staff fall in the middle of these two polls and are required to inform their supervisor of a report.
Throughout the semester, an increasing pool of faculty and staff are going through the National Coalition for Higher Education Risk Management training. Once a report has been filed with administration, two members of this pool of up to 25 people will be chosen as investigators. Additionally, two faculty/staff will be chosen to remain available as student advocates and two will be chosen as members of the University Conduct Board (UCB) for the hearing.
“So we want to have a more credible group to choose from for these three roles, and we want people to play the different roles so that they can see what it’s like to write an investigative report, to be the one to have to read and decide on that report and to sit there with a student and try to explain how the process works,” Tuttle said. “We want the investigation to happen outside of the hearing so the hearing is just an opportunity to get clarification on things. “
Investigators put together statements and summary reports from both the accused and accuser, allowing each party to review and clarify their own report. Then, each party is able to view the opposing report and respond accordingly in an additional statement. From these four reports, each investigator will compile a summary report along with a recommended sanction to be filed with the UCB, which can either accept or reject these recommendations.
Within the hearing, members of the UCB may ask questions of the investigators or either party. However, this process prevents students from retelling their stories multiple times.