Following a surge of student and community attention around sexual assault, Trinity’s Student Government Association (SGA) held a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 5 in the Fiesta Room to create a campus dialogue about the university’s sexual assault policies and procedures.
The panel included six community members: Stephen Bachrach, distinguished professor, chair of the chemistry department and Title IX coordinator; David Tuttle, dean of students and vice president for student affairs; Rick Giprich, member support & advocacy program director for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault; Melissa Flowers, assistant director for residential education; Barbara Berkova and Sarah Miller, co-chairs of the student conduct board and Peter Perez, assistant chief of the Trinity University Police Department (TUPD).
“It seems to me that this year has kind of been at this low-level simmer all year “˜round about why and how some [assaults are reported], and then, finally, as we came into this semester, it kind of sparked,” said Evan Lewis, SGA president. “I don’t know what did it, exactly, but the time was just right to have a conversation, so Dean Tuttle and myself put it together.”
In light of national news coverage as well as recent Trinity attention, the topic of sexual assaults on campus has raised many questions. According to Lewis and Tuttle, the town hall sought to open a dialogue within the Trinity community and serve as an educational setting for discussion of campus policies and procedures in dealing with reports of sexual assault.
Extensions of the Title IX legislation made in 2011 mandate that when a sexual assault is reported to the university, Trinity has an obligation to investigate it. This process is continued by the University Conduct Board (UCB), composed of three faculty, two staff and two students who rotate to hear each case. Tuttle acts as a facilitator during the UCB process, but is non-voting and absent during decision making. This process and its sanction is separate from the judicial system.
According to Perez, if a student wishes to pursue an assault legally, TUPD corresponds with the university, then forwards any information to the San Antonio District Attorney’s office. This process is estimated to take three to four days, and at that point the district attorney can choose whether to further investigate the case or not. If legally pursued, both sides of the report will be investigated within the criminal justice system.
During the town hall students asked questions regarding details of the UCB appeal process, particularly the ability and circumstances under which an accused student can file for an appeal.
According to Flowers, who facilitates the Conduct Review Board as a non-voting member, both the accuser and the accused have the option to appeal a decision to the board. As stated on the university webpage, written appeals must be made within five class days of the date of the decision. Flowers said that if procedural errors are significant enough as to suggest an unfair hearing, the sanction may be reviewed. Methods of restorative justice are not procedural during sexual assault cases.
When concerns from students were voiced about the sexual history of the accused or the survivor being exposed during the hearing, administrators reassured that this was prohibited. Tuttle agreed that this should be added to the language of the current sexual assault policies.
Many students voiced concern about the varying degrees of punishment as a result of sexual assault hearings, comparing levels of sanction for assaults to those of “victimless crimes,” such as marijuana use or plagiarism, and calling for a more stringent standard of punishment for all sexual assault cases. However, faculty and student members of the UCB shared protest for “rubber-stamping” punishments.
According to Flowers, the sanctions process has evolved from a policy of mandatory expulsion in the case of sexual assault. The range of sanctions recommended by the consultants who helped write university policy ranges from suspension to expulsion.
“Even with the [campus conduct] drug policy, we have specific standards outlined. However, even though that is outlined, that isn’t something that we necessarily stick to. We always like to have a little bit of flexibility depending on if you’re smoking a joint or if there’s a little bit of a smell of marijuana in your room, that doesn’t necessarily warrant suspension,” Berkova said. “All cases of sexual assault are important, it’s just difficult to give an automatic sanction for everything. We need that flexibility sometimes.”
Tuttle and Bachrach agreed that a standard punishment for all reports of sexual assault would delegitimize the UCB process, not fulfilling the university’s obligation to protect both parties during the hearing and consider all circumstances of the incident.
“The people who are accused, they want a fair process. The truth is, we cannot have a rubber-stamp process if it’s going to have legitimacy and credibility,” Tuttle said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t support our students who are survivors of sexual assault.”
Many students at the town hall pointed out the challenges the survivor faces if the individual reponsible returned to campus after suspension. However, aside from calling for a mandatory-expulsion, recommendations on preventing or handling this occurrence were not made by the participants.
“I have seen situations of sexual misconduct where I do believe the proper outcome would be a suspension and not an expulsion. And when that person arrives. It would be horrible, absolutely,” Bachrach said. “We have to balance the rights of everybody that’s involved here. The returning student has some rights, too. We do expect the criminal justice system – and you’ve paid your time, you’ve done your time in prison – they release you back into society. I would love to hear some solution too, but it needs people thinking on both sides. We would love to make everybody’s life easier, particularly the survivor.”
While on the panel, Gipprich offered many pieces of advice encouraging student education of what sexual assault actually looks like and needing to change campus culture so that reporting sexual assaults becomes normalized.
“If doubt and lack of trust and no patience is the norm, then there needs to be a shift. And the shift needs to be that you report it, that you, as students, hold perpetrators accountable,” Giprich said. “This is a shift from victim responsibility to perpetrator accountability. It’s not about what a victim did, it’s about what message was sent and what message was taken by the perpetrator that allowed him to do what he did.”
According to Giprich, Trinity is at an advantage due to its level of student involvement and communication with administration. He assured that these concerns are not uncommon on college campuses but advocated for a higher level of student accountability. Similarly, Bachrach advocated for student accountability as a means of preventing sexual assault.
“What I’m interested in talking about is student accountability to each other. In every case that I’ve seen there have been multiple opportunities for a friend to step in and say, “˜Hey, you’ve had too much, let’s go home,’ and it didn’t happen, over and over and over again,” Bachrach said. “That’s what I’d like to see students do–and that’s what that Step Up program we have is.”
Toward the conclusion of the town hall, more survivors spoke about their personal experiences with the system and concerns arose of trust within the university. However, many of the survivors encouraged others to speak out and report sexual assaults, assuring that, despite personal hardship and policy flaws, they trusted the university and its administration.
In The Future
Concluding the town hall, members of the community discussed current and future ways to prevent and deal with sexual assaults within the campus community.
“I think one of the most important things is that survivors should have the option of speaking to a female advocate. Secondly, I think [the university] should have a more comprehensive sexual assault awareness training for NSO (New Student Orientation),” said Anna Van Buskirk, junior resident mentor and member of the academic honor council. “Thirdly, I think it’s very important that disciplinary procedures are consistently enforced. It’s very easy for people to have misconceptions about what’s going on until they know the details, so I think it’s very important to be clear about what [the university] expects and the standards to which they expect us to adhere.”
It was also announced that the Zeta Chi sorority and Iota Chi Rho fraternity will be working on sexual assault awareness training.
According to Tuttle, tentative future plans include scheduling a panel of policy consultants with the SGA to meet with students and setting up a campus assault resource network to meet regularly and discuss procedures and campus climate.
“I think the important thing to take away from this, as a student leader on campus, things like this aren’t really enough,” Lewis said. “Getting involved when something has already happened obviously won’t prevent it. We need people involved the entire time, and we need this conversation, because you can’t put the bullet back in the gun.”