On Monday, Jan. 26, President Amy Gutmann emailed the undergraduate student body, announcing the University’s new protocols regarding sexual violence. As part of a “comprehensive review,” the University considered and revised its own reporting and punitive processes, consulting the Department of Education, along with peer institutions.
The new protocols went into effect Feb. 1, hoping to reinvigorate Penn’s history as a school Gutmann labels a “longtime leader in responding to complaints of sexual violence.” These new procedures make important changes, like training faculty and solidifying the rights of both complainants and respondents. Changes to the charter and protocols also involve the creation of Penn’s first Sexual Violence Investigative Officer, a position later filled by former Attorney Advisor for AEquitas, Christopher Mallios.
However, this new policy also creates a host of new problems. Perhaps the most jarring and important, is accessibility.
Gutmann’s email directs to what is titled the “Student Disciplinary Charter Amendment,” a document that fails to do the very job it was assigned.
Besides the thick legalese and complicated procedures, the Amendment’s problems begin with its location, published separate of Penn’s other disciplinary proceedings. Furthermore, the document repeatedly refers to the University’s Sexual Violence Policy. This means students seeking a simple definition of sexual assault, consent or stalking are still without help.
Finding the “Sexual Violence Policy” is more difficult than a simple, messy Google search. Upon visiting the Provost’s page — either directly or via the Office of Student Conduct’s page — for an explanation of the policy, students are greeted with a cold “Error 404” page, with an ironically tragic subtitle: “Go Home.”
Searching for the Sexual Violence Policy in the Penn Almanac, a database of official University documents, proves even more challenging.
Results include a confusing aggregation of sexual assault policies from multiple decades, and do not label any “the most up to date.”
The searching’s findings include a “Sexual Violence Policy” published in May 2012 (as well as one from September 2013 and September 2014, as well as another from July 2012), in addition to multiple crime reports, documents from 1985 and University newsletters.
Thus, students have virtually no way of answering one of the issue’s most complicated and important problems: the meaning of sexual assault. Instead, they are bombarded with diverse and confusing definitions, embedded in a sea of complicated documents.
If a student is considering reporting an incident, they need answers up-front. This is a prerequisite issue to the problems the Amendment attempts to address. Students need a solid definition, not a “it depends” or “it’s fuzzy.” When trying to respond to difficult and confusing situations, the University needs to draw hard, clear lines.
How does the University define sexual assault? What does consent actually mean? What happens when both parties are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs? Have they both raped each other? Who, at that point, can claim status as the victim?
Even if these answers to these questions are complicated, the University needs to, at the least, make them easily findable, let alone readable. Perhaps they could take a cue from the “Charter of the Student Disciplinary System” and make a condensed version.
Online inaccessibility should make students wonder if there are other reasons the University hopes to keep its processes vague and largely unavailable to the student body.
This isn’t just logistically problematic: it’s discouraging to victims.
On Jan. 28, The Daily Pennsylvanian printed an interview with Mallios in which he said, “We want people to have confidence in the fairness and safety of the system so that they feel comfortable coming to this office to file a report, to respond to a report or to serve as a witness.” While Penn has clearly stated it wants to ease the process of reporting sexual assault, the University’s actions have not, as of late, indicated as much. We can only hope that the administration fixes these issues before someone in need of help gives up trying to find the answers they seek.
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