This article marks the beginning of a multi-week series that will detail sexual assault and the conversation surrounding it at Skidmore. This first week will focus on the College's protocol for responding to sexual misconduct, including its reporting and hearing process. In the coming weeks, my co-editor, Billie Kanfer, and I, will publish on a weekly basis, articles addressing the handling of sexual misconduct.
First, I want to detail the process, as David Karp, Assistant Dean of Campus Life and Mariel Martin, Director of Student Diversity Programs/Title IX Deputy Coordinator outlined to me.
Once a student files a case of sexual misconduct with a source obligated to report (such as Campus Safety), whether it be an inappropriate note or a rape, the report is sent to Martin. Her job is to enforce Title IX law, which was created and is overseen by the federal Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The law is intended to eliminate gender discrimination at institutions of higher education. To uphold the law, Martin is responsible for investigating any incident. She explained, “A trained partner and I act as neutral fact finders.” Both Martin and Karp are trained in investigating sexual assault and receive training at least one a year.
The investigation is a very in-depth process that will go as far as evidence allows. Sometimes victims do not say enough to conduct a full investigation; therefore, ending investigations quickly. However, if victims are forthcoming, then all relevant people, including witnesses and the person accused are interviewed. If hard evidence exists—such as a rape kit, cellphone records, or door swipe records—it is collected. All of this information is then compiled into an investigation report which will eventually be handed over to the sexual misconduct committee in advance of a hearing. The report will highlight agreements and disagreements between the reporting individual (student making a claim) and the responding individual (student that has been accused). Both students are allowed to voice their opinions on the report prior to the hearing. By highlighting these agreements and disagreements, the hearing board is better able to question the reporting and responding students when the hearing occurs.
In any case of sexual misconduct, the goal of the policy is to stop the behavior, especially if the reporting student reports repeated abuse. The second goal is to “remedy the behavior,” meaning that reporting (and responding) students should be guided through the aftermath of an event, whether they need counseling, law services or other help, including housing relocation or class changes. The last goal is to prevent the behavior from happening again, so if necessary, students are removed from campus before hearings occur. This also explains why green posters go up on campus, so students can be aware that misconduct is happening and that the college is responding. These posters are required by the Cleary Act in order to make sure students are aware of dangers on campus so that they can take action to protect themselves; such as locking their doors or avoiding dangerous situations.
To achieve these three goals, there will be a hearing where both students are allowed to voice their concerns. The hearing board is made up of trained faculty who have been selected through a willingness-to-serve process. Martin noted that all members undergo a six-week intensive training process in the fall. In addition, as of October 2014, students are allowed to have a lawyer (or any advisor, friend, counselor they choose) present in the hearing room, so long as the lawyer does not speak—this would make the hearing too much like a court case. Students are also allowed specific accommodations. For example, if they desire, students are not forced to look at each other during the hearing. A screen can be placed between the reporting and responding sides of the room. These hearings tend to be incredibly adversarial because according to David Karp, “nearly 100% of responders deny responsibility.”
This leaves the board in a tough place. “Most cases come down to word vs. word,” Martin said. So to find students responsible, the boards use a preponderance system. Students can be found responsible beyond reasonable doubt (99.9% sure), clear and convincing (75% sure), or confident (51% sure). The board, after deliberation, reaches a level of confidence to determine culpability, but does not share their confidence level with either student. However, even if a student is found responsible at the lowest level, only 51%, they are still assigned sanctions the same as if they had be found responsible beyond reasonable doubt, a standard practice dictated by the Justice Department. As a comparison, the U.S. justice system must find those charged guilty beyond reasonable doubt in order to convict. This is important to understand because these hearings are not court cases. Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs Rochelle Calhoun underscored that the objective in these cases is simply to establish whether a responding individual has violated Skidmore’s code of conduct. “We are establishing responsibility by the lowest standard, which has been critiqued, but we are trying to find a basic breach.”
If students are found responsible, they are assigned sanctions by the hearing board, although Calhoun is responsible for reviewing suggestions of suspension and expulsion. As explained in the sexual misconduct policy:
Sanctions preserve individual and institutional safety and integrity and, whenever possible and appropriate, help offenders repair the damage to the individual and community for which they have been found responsible. Individuals found to be in violation of sexual and gender-based misconduct offenses involving penetration will likely face a recommended sanction of suspension or expulsion. Individuals found to be in repeat violation for sexual and/or gender-based misconduct offenses will likely face a recommended sanction of suspension or expulsion.
When asked about whether students should be expelled for all violations of misconduct (as Student Government Association President Addison Bennett suggested in his recent open letter), Calhoun responded with ambivalence: “The big question is what should we do [to respond to those found guilty of sexual misconduct] and we don’t have an answer at this time.” She continued, “I’m taken by how varied the answer is in our community… there is an assumption that all victims want a bright line. It’s a very nuanced issue though.” She explained, “it’s discussed in a very binary way, but when we have conversations in the community, it’s not this.”
When asked what the chief misconceptions of sexual misconduct are, Martin responded, “why are institutions of higher education handling this?” Martin explained that members of the Skidmore community are always held accountable to the code of conduct and when they violate it, they are held liable, whether it be rape or theft. Students always have a right to file outside complaints and students will do what’s best for them. Although, responding individuals may be better off having their cases heard on campus. As Karp said, “the criminal justice system does not often [file] charge[s] because there is no evidence.” This stresses why Title IX boards are so important: They pose the only real likelihood of consequences for perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Martin made clear that students are encouraged to file complaints with outside bodies if they desire and that the school will direct reporting students to whomever they would like to talk to, including the police. She stated that “for some, not filling complaints may be the best option, for others, it’s pursuing their case through the justice system.” She put her role best: “my job is make folks aware of the options and resources.” And she emphasized, “this is an administrative policy that is well vetted and up to par with all federal standards.”
After spring break, we will publish the next piece on individual stories of sexual assault and how the hearing process worked out. We hope this series encourages discussion of this incredibly important issue.