Penn plans to revamp its handling of sexual assault disciplinary proceedings by next semester, Penn’s chief lawyer confirmed Wednesday after the University Council meeting.
The change in procedures, following new federal guidelines, will shift Penn’s disciplinary process for sexual assaults from the Office of Student Conduct to a separate sexual violence investigative officer. “We are already looking to hire a professional Title IX investigator,” Senior Vice President and General Counsel Wendy White said at the meeting.
Under the new policy, the new sexual violence investigator will review the evidence in every case and interview both the complainant and respondent about the incident. After issuing a preliminary report, both the complainant and respondent will have an opportunity to provide feedback and further information, after which a final report with a proposed recommendation and sanction will be issued, White explained.
At this point, if all parties involved are satisfied with the report, then the matter can be settled. Otherwise, the matter can be appealed to an all-faculty panel trained in handling sexual assault cases. The panel will then interview all involved parties, White said, and review the evidence and ultimately decide the matter .
The shift to an all-faculty panel marks a stark change from current practices, which are still in effect. Under current policies, if an OSC decision is appealed, a panel of students and faculty members will hear the disciplinary proceeding.
While in the past Penn held off on investigating sexual assaults if the matter had been reported to Philadelphia Police, this practice is no longer allowed under new federal guidelines . “We are required to go ahead with our process even though there may be a criminal proceeding going on simultaneously,” White said.
After being asked by University Council members about minimum sanctions for students found responsible for sexual assaults, White responded that Penn’s new policy will not impose a universal range of sanctions, as possible punishments will vary by case. However, “in the usual case, if someone is found responsible for sexual assault, they will be separated at some point — at some period of time — from the University,” White said.
“One of the concerns that we share is whether there has been consistency across cases,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said. “That’s what we want to address.”
Penn’s shift in sexual assault procedures follows federal legislation and guidelines that require colleges across the country to change how they handle cases of sexual assault. Harvard, Columbia universities and Dartmouth College have all recently appointed a single coordinator to handle sexual assault cases.
The previous process “was not working effectively” at Penn and at colleges across the country, White said. However, she added that the new policy will be more fair and impartial, and “less intimidating.” As a result, White said she expects there to be an increase in reported incidents.
Race was also a point of discussion at the University Council meeting. UMOJA Chair Denzel Cummings protested the lack of racial focus during the next academic theme year and UMOJA Political Chair Nikki Hardison read a statement in defense of College junior Cam Countryman, who was arrested after a fight reportedly instigated by racial slurs.
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