The U.S Department of Education’s recommendation that all reported on-campus sexual misconduct allegations should be investigated by the university might have negative repercussions for survivors of sexual assault.
In April 2011, a “Dear Colleague” letter was released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights designed to clarify Title IX regulations.
The letter provides a detailed overview of existing responsibilities under Title IX when processing the complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence on college campuses. It adds an obligation to promptly investigate all cases of sexual misconduct whether a harassed student, his or her parent or a third party files a complaint.
Stephen Thompson, Central Michigan University’s director of Sexual Aggression Services, said CMU’s policy differs from universities who have fully implemented the Title IX recommendations. CMU awaits a survivor’s permission before investigating cases of sexual misconduct.
“Where we are unique and different is that the survivor is given options,” Thompson said. “They might not want to come forward and talk to somebody. If a survivor wants to come forward, they will. Nothing will be done until they want something to be done.”
Many universities do not follow that model.
The University of Michigan is the most recent university in the state to adopt a new sexual assault policy no longer requiring permission of the victim to begin an investigation. The new policy, according to Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of U-M’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, effectively takes the burden off of the complainant and shifts it to the university.
While the victim of sexual misconduct would have previously been the driving force of university investigations, the case is now handled by the Title IX coordinator at U of M, as it is at many other institutions. Under the new policy, the complainant has total control over their participation in the investigation.
The newly adopted policy also uses a “more likely than not” preponderance of evidence standard to evaluate an allegation. Previously, U-M used a “clear and convincing” evidence standard.
Rider-Milkovich said the new policy is a carefully-thought, balanced and proactive approach.
“Our policy was created over 30 months of talking to staff, with survivors, institutional leaders, other campuses and reviewing sexual misconduct policies universities have created throughout the country,” Rider-Milkovich said.
The changes have resulted in a higher level of sexual misconduct cases being reported.
“Before we made these changes, we had fewer than five sexual assault cases (per year),” Rider-Milkovich said. “After, we had more than 60 in a year.”
The policy, which applies to all U-M students as well as participants in university-sponsored programs, took effect Aug. 19 as students began returning to campus. An interim policy, similar to the new policy, was in place for the majority of 2012.
Though U-M believes the new policy is the best response to sexual assault on campus, Thompson said U-M’s policy is decidedly not victim-friendly for two reasons.
First, he said that by investigating every reported case, universities are not only investigating instances the victim does not want investigated, but are also investigating rumors without great substance. This results in many victims, who are only looking for consultation, not to seek help.
Secondly, he said, universities are not prepared to fully investigate serious sexual assault cases to such a wide extent.
“Sexual assault is a criminal issue. The Office of Student Life are great people, but they are completely unprepared to investigate sexual assaults,” Thompson said. “They don’t know enough about sexual assault. I’ve done trainings around the world; I’ve heard this said repeatedly.”
With the exception of waiting for the complainant to step forward, CMU’s policy is almost identical to U of M’s policy. Both are reviewed by the Title IX coordinator and use “preponderance of evidence” as their criteria.
Rider-Milkovich said U-M has a process in place if complainants state they do not want the matter investigated.
A review panel is formed with a number of university officials that represent student interest, law enforcement and other relevant bodies. The university will then make a careful consideration on whether the matter should be further investigated.
The new policy has been well received by students, Rider-Milkovich said.
“We hear over and over again, they are glad that the new process is in place,” she said. “That they have been able to control their participation, but not have to carry the burden.”