September 30, 2004

Judicial Administrator Answers Critics of Sexual Assault Policies

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In a meeting with The Sun on Tuesday, Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant, Law ’83, defended her office against criticism of its handling of sexual assault cases and explained its procedures and methods.

The J.A.’s office, which investigates and proposes resolutions to alleged infractions of the Campus Code — such as underage drinking and sexual assault — has been both publically praised and attacked in recent weeks for its actions regarding sexual assault cases.

Over labor day weekend, a rape allegedly occurred on University property, and relatives of the victim say that the J.A. is trying to keep the case quiet and protect the alleged perpetrator. Since then, The Sun has received letters and calls both in support of the campus judicial system and from victims who say that their cases were pushed aside.

Grant emphasized that, often unlike the legal system, the J.A. tries to keep the best interests of the complainant in mind.

“One of the guiding questions that we use throughout the process is we ask the victim, ‘What will help you heal?'” she said. “Sometimes the victim says, ‘All I really want is for him to know he did something wrong.'”

Grant said that hearings are done on a person-to-person basis due to this victim-friendly focus.

Differences in hearings ranged from a complainant asking to face the accused, to a screen separator between the two, all the way to separate rooms, according to Grant.

“The judicial administrator talks frequently with the complainant,” she said.

Grant also addressed the accusation that the J.A. was dropping charges that the complainant wanted pressed.

“A complainant has a right to a hearing before the hearing board if he or she disagrees with how the J.A.’s office resolves a case,” she said, adding that the University judicial system gives both the accused and the accuser the right to appeal decisions he or she disagrees with.

“For example, maybe she disagrees with the J.A.’s decision to enter into an agreement with an accused person rather than pursuing suspension at a hearing,” Grant said. “Or, maybe the complainant disagrees with the J.A.’s decision to dismiss a case rather than to pursue some educational sanction. In these situations, the complainant may ask the hearing board to examine the J.A.’s decisions.”

“We are not the last word,” said Grant of her office.

The J.A. also emphasized the differences between the campus judicial system and the legal court system.

For example, the maximum punishment that can result from a hearing is expulsion from the University. In the campus system, however, the determination of guilt is decided by the lower standard of “clear and convincing proof” as opposed to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” “The system is not a criminal justice system, and its goals are different from a criminal justice system,” Grant said. “Its goals are education and providing a safe educational environment.”

Another focus of the system, Grant said, is healing for the victim.

“The judicial system, while not trying to be a criminal justice system, does provide a place for people to try and redress a situation or hold folks accountable or to help them learn or help themselves feel like they’ve done something,” Grant said.

Even if the J.A. feels that it does not have enough evidence to win a case, Grant told The Sun, it does seek a resolution for the two parties.

“We say, what can we do to provide educational opportunities, so he’s not in this situation again. What can we do about education involving alcohol. Are there counseling issues? We stop when we’ve done everything we can to provide education and support. Support for the victim and education for the accused.”

Grant also responded to accusations that the J.A. silences victims, saying “There is nothing to prevent anyone from talking about what he or she experienced. That is true for the accused as well.”

In a recent article in The Sun, Daniel Carter from Security on Campus was quoted as saying that a recent legal battle with Georgetown was a response to Cornell’s policy of confidentiality for its own judicial cases. The case, which his organization won, found against Georgetown’s policy of forcing students to sign a confidentiality waiver in order to hear the verdict of a case they were involved in.

“[In] the Georgetown case that you talked about, they put strings on when the accused person or the victim could receive the outcome of the case,” she said. “We don’t put strings on it and before [the Cleary Act] has ever been around, it has always part of our process to provide victims or complainants with information about how the case was resolved.”

The Cleary Act, passed in response to the 1986 murder of a student, forces schools to disclose crime statistics of their campus and maintain certain crime-related records, as well as inform complainants of the status of their judicial case.

If, when the additional guidance comes out [from the Department of Education after the case], we take a look at and say, we can tweak, we can improve, we’ll do it,” Grant added, saying that she felt the University complied with the act as it is.

Grant did, however, say that involved parties “are not supposed to speak about the proceedings.” She cautioned that this was her understanding of the Campus Code as best she could recall.

Grant also discussed the rights of the victims. In addition to the right not be in the same room as the accused, the complainant has a right to an advisor.

“The role of the advisor is very important,” Grant said. “The victims advocate would be the one who would say, we need some time out [during a hearing].”

Grant said that the advisor helped the J.A. concentrate on the hearing: “It’s really important for the victim to have that support person because then the J.A. can focus on proving the case and cross-examining.”

There are also a host of victim-oriented support services, such as EARS and the Victim Advocacy Program, on campus and in Ithaca to help students through these situations, Grant pointed out.

Grant also noted that two appeals are given to victims, once if they disagree with the J.A.’s arbitration of the case and once if the complainant disagrees with the hearing board’s decision.

She also noted that only the hearing board’s decision — not hers — was binding and that the hearing board was, for students, made up of three students, a faculty member and a staff member. She emphasized that, in a trial, she was not ultimately responsible for the outcome. Grant also said that her office takes sexual assault very seriously.

“No does not mean keep asking, maybe I’ll wear her down. No does not mean maybe. No means no, and drunk doesn’t mean yes,” she said. “Anybody who does not take no for an answer or who interprets somebody who is so intoxicated that it is an okay thing to proceed, then that’s wrong and we pursue those cases.”

Grant also responded to accusations that her office was resistant to change.

“One of the priorities that I’ve had as the J.A. is to press forward issues that could be changed in the campus judicial system,” she said, noting that a personal priority of hers was to make the Campus Code’s language more education-focused as opposed to criminal justice system-focused.

“The codes and judicial committee is asking and I’m asking for there to be some sort of look at the code,” she said. “Have we taken it as far as we can or do we want to do more to it?” “We did an external review of our office and the judicial system a couple of years ago and one of the things that they’ve raised and that I’ve raised as well is that our code is complex,” she said. “Are there easier ways to access it?”

“I’m not taking a position on the policy issues because that is a community-wide decision,” she added. “My position is that I will enforce the code in whatever form it is, but I do think that we need to make sure that … the policies in it reflect the community standard.”

She also noted that some in the University community have wanted to extend the jurisdiction of the code from events that occur
on Cornell property to events occurring in any location that involve Cornell students.

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Senior Writer