Editorial | How sexual assault stacks up

Penn’s policy change shows an awareness of a sensitive issue, but it should have involved more in the discussion

· April 11, 2012, 1:54 am   ·  Updated April 12, 2012, 10:51 pm

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Penn’s announcement yesterday that will require less evidence to find students guilty of sexual assault did not come without controversy. Previously, the University required “clear and convincing evidence” to move forward with a case. Now, it only requires evidence that it was more probable than not that a student was involved in an incident for him or her to be found guilty.

This message acknowledges that sexual assault is a grave concern that needs to be addressed on campus. However, deliberations on the policy change did not include the wider Penn community. The Office of Student Conduct, which was behind the change, was far from transparent about its process.

This month at Cornell University, proposed changes to its sexual assault policy — similar to those that have been announced at Penn — are being debated extensively by the University Assembly, which consists of faculty members, employees as well as undergraduate and graduate students. The deliberative process that is accompanying the decision at Cornell is admirable and should have been employed here.

The changes at Penn were modeled after a letter it received a year ago from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This indicates the University had ample time to consult a wide range of students, staff and faculty — the people most affected by the policy change — before arriving at its decision.

Moving forward, the University should do more to educate students and staff on the new policy. Technical terms such as the “preponderance of the evidence,” which is the new standard of proof, should be explained in layman’s terms.

One in four college women have survived rape or attempted rape, according to Department of Justice estimates. The number of women who report incidents, however, does not stack up. To effectively combat this widespread problem, education is key.

In addition to making University policy changes more accessible to students, administrators should design programs to help prevent sexual assault from occurring in the first place. Penn can also do more to equip students with knowledge of existing resources to handle situations should they arise.

As time goes by, the definitions and policies surrounding sensitive issues such as sexual assault should be subject to continual revisions. The policy change announced yesterday shows that administrators are aware that sexual assault is a problem on campus. But the lack of input from the rest of the Penn community is disconcerting. Students and faculty deserve to shape the policies that so heavily influence their lives.

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