Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' announcement on proposed changes to sexual assault policies last week has prompted widespread anxiety on Penn's campus.
While students are looking for affirmation, Penn administrators said they are waiting until the Department of Education releases a formal policy before making any definitive statements.
“The policy wouldn’t change, but we’re waiting to see if the 'burden of proof' is going to be altered," Sexual Violence Investigative Officer Deborah Harley said.
In a 2011 statement known as the Dear Colleague letter, the Obama administration called on all federally funded schools to use the lowest possible standard of proof, or a "preponderance of evidence" in sexual assault cases. DeVos proposes changing the legal rhetoric from this to "clear and convincing evidence," which some schools had been using prior to 2011.
The shift would make it more difficult for disciplinary panels to find alleged perpetrators responsible.
“We will need to study what they ultimately propose. But at Penn we have worked very hard to address the issue of sexual assault on campus by developing policies and procedures that are responsive to our community, fair and effective," University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement.
“Penn has a long track record of offering innovative education and prevention programs and has been a longtime leader in responding to complaints of sexual violence,” Penn President Amy Gutmann and former Provost Vincent Price wrote in the policy.
Penn Law professor John Hollway, the executive director of Penn's Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, stressed the importance of "accurately" investigating sexual assault complaints.
“We need to be aware that sexual assaults happen, and we need to be aware that issues of proof can be very, very difficult," Hollway said. "The consequences have meaningful impact on everyone involved."
College senior Caroline Ohlson, the president of the Panhellenic Council, a member of Penn Anti-Violence Educators and an executive board member of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, said that regardless of policy, the message and education methods of PAVE would not change.
“We live in a culture that already puts so much blame on victims and survivors of sexual assault,” Ohlson said. “It’s important that we continue to push to foster a community at Penn that wants to support people, believe people and demystify a lot of myths surrounding sexual assault accusations.”
Ohlson also noted that false allegations for sexual assault are rare — FBI reports show that only about 2 percent of all rape and sexual assault charges are false.
Ohlson advocated for continued on-campus conversations about sexual assault, particularly in Greek life.
“I think that Greek life will continue to promote these conversations, and I personally will continue to push for these issues,” Ohlson said. “Now, just as always, it’s important for us to care for each other, support each other and keep our campus safe.”
This message of unity and support was echoed by Vagina Monologues Producer and College senior Ariana Martino.
“Penn has done a really great job in the past few years coming together over this issue," Martino said. "So if anything, that would become even more strong if these guidelines were to change, because we’d just have that much more to fight for.”
Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault President and College senior Zeeshan Mallick agreed, adding that he was shocked by DeVos' announcement.
Mallick said the existing disciplinary policy creates "a safer campus" and spares victims of sexual assault from "having to be in the same room as the person they are accusing or having to jump through hoops in order to go to a courtroom."
Shortly before DeVos' announcement, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a report critiquing due process protection in disciplinary procedures at America's top universities.
FIRE took the top 53 universities in the U.S. News & World Report ranking and gave each school a letter grade based on their disciplinary policies. It reviewed sexual and non-sexual complaint policies separately.
Although Penn received one of the highest overall grades, it has the largest gap in scores between sexual assault cases and other cases. Penn's sexual misconduct policy received a failing grade of only 3 out of a possible 20 points for protecting due process.
While Officer Harley disputes Penn's score, Susan Kruth and Samantha Harris, two of the authors of the FIRE report, remain confident in their assessment of Penn's disciplinary policies.
Penn's policy does not require a unanimous panel decision for expulsion, but rather a majority. Universities like Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University require unanimity.
Penn also does not include an explicit presumption of innocence for accused students.
Harley contends that students are allowed the right to outside counsel, whether it be an attorney or an advisor from the University. To receive credit in the FIRE report, however, outside counsel must be allowed to "take an active role" in the disciplinary hearing.
Harris contends that Penn's policies allows for "conflicts of interest," which Harley also disputes.
"Like many schools, Penn received only partial credit this category because there is no separation between the prosecutorial and adjudicative functions," Harris said. "So you have the hearing panel responsible not only for deciding the outcome of the case, but also for conducting all of the questioning of the parties, witnesses and investigator."
"It's not that we feel the issue of sexual assault is not important," Kruth said. "This report might be helpful to incoming students and parents of students so they can really see what policies they could really be subjected to if they matriculate at any of these schools."
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