Penn has announced revisions to its university-wide sexual violence policy.
The new policy, which appeared in the Almanac on Tuesday, provides new definitions related to sexual assault, such as what constitutes rape and consent to engage in sexual activity. Additionally, the policy has expanded the list of resources available for counseling and complaint resolution, and clarifies the rights of complainants and respondents prior to the investigation procedure.
Vice President of Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell explained the policy revisions were triggered by the “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April 2011. The letter’s guidelines — as well as the Clery Act, which requires universities to disclose information about crimes committed on or near their campuses — encouraged institutions like Penn to “be clearer about rights and expectations that people have” regarding sexual violence policy, Mitchell said.
She added that while the newly released over-arching policy governs the entire Penn community and its visitors, more specific guidance is being developed for students, faculty and staff. Expected to be announced in the fall, these policies will identify key aspects of complaint procedures‚ such as the burden of evidence for establishing a complaint and the standard of proof that will be used to determine case outcomes.
Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, believes these policies must guarantee a fair procedure for both alleged victims and accused students.
According to Creeley, many colleges’ sexual violence and harassment policies — including Penn’s peer schools like Harvard and Yale universities — fail to ensure accused students their basic due process rights. These include presumption of innocence before guilt, notice of and opportunity to respond to charges and equal access to evidence.
“Universities have a legal obligation to address allegations of sexual assault — every student should feel safe and protected and have access to justice,” Creeley said. “Our worry is that in the rush to respond to allegations of sexual harassment, universities may forget that the accused are not guilty until they are proven so, and that lowering the standard of evidence may result in false findings of guilt which will alter lives in really serious and deeply regrettable ways.”
In April, the Office of Student Conduct announced its revised student sexual misconduct policy, lowering the standard of proof from “clear and convincing evidence” to “preponderance of the evidence” — or just over 50 percent likelihood the accused student is responsible for the alleged incident.
According to Mitchell, the forthcoming guidelines will also help to “operationalize the policy” through expanding upon its definitions and list of available resources.
The Division of Public Safety, Human Resources and the Provost’s Office, along with other offices within the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life, contributed to developing the new policy.
According to Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush, while the policy “doesn’t really change anything from a policing point of view,” it serves as “a funnel to the right resources” for victims of sexual violence who may not know where to get help or report the incident.
Rush explained resource centers like DPS and the LGBT Center can help victims understand their options in proceeding with a sexual assault or harassment complaint. Students can either go through the formal criminal justice process — which may involve the District Attorney and Philadelphia’s special victims units — or pursue the complaint within University disciplinary proceedings.
While sexual violence is also a criminal offense, sanctions in a criminal court are “quite different than if you were being charged by OSC or if you were appearing before a staff grievance process,” Mitchell said. “Our policies are meant to help people live up to their rights and responsibilities they have by law as a baseline, but we also have aspirations about what it means to be part of our community.”
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