April 22, 2013

Administrators, Profs Clash on Sexual Assault Policy Changes

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Professors and administrators debated the implications of an April 2012 change to Cornell’s sexual assault policy that lowered the burden of proof for cases against students at Daily Sun Dialogues, a panel event held Monday by The Sun and co-sponsored by the Cornell Forensics Society.

The panelists — Narda Terrones ’14, Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner, Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88, Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, and Prof. Michael Heise, law — touched upon the parameters of the new policy, as well as its benefits, drawbacks and limitations. Though University administrators said the new policy makes it easier and more comfortable for victims to come forward, law school professors said the changes infringe on the accused’s rights.

The procedure students accused of sexual assault undergo is based on an investigation, review and appeal model: once a complaint has been made, the Judicial Administration will conduct an investigation, questioning witnesses, arranging interviews and collecting physical evidence, according to Grant. Throughout this process, Grant said, there will be the opportunity for either party to have an advisor present.

“Any time during the process, it’s possible for the parties to come to an agreement. This is the most common way that cases are adjudicated,” Grant said.

While both Grant and Zoner emphasized that the changes would protect the privacy of those involved in sexual assault proceedings, Clermont raised the issue of protecting the rights of the accused.

“These are very serious accusations that call for certain care and procedure,” Clermont said in response to a question asking if the changes were necessary or the most effective way to achieve change. “There are rights that are at stake that we have to think about long and hard before we toss them aside.”

Concerns that the new procedure would not necessarily benefit any of the parties were also raised by both professors.

“There are many different and unpredictable ways this will play out, and not all of them are going to be pleasant,” Heise said.

The review stage will consist of an appointed faculty member reviewing a written report submitted by the JA, which will be shared with both parties to amend or correct before it is given to the reviewer, according to Grant. She emphasized that the differences in the two policies are not as drastic as commonly perceived.

The primary change is that “now these things are on paper rather than live testimony,” Grant said. This is an effort to protect people’s privacy as well as to enable people to be more precise and thoughtful in how they present their case, she said.

The final stage is the opportunity to appeal a decision, which is also done in writing, according to Grant.

The panelists discussed what the University wanted to accomplish with the changes to the policy. Grant was the first to respond, saying that she believes the ideal way to stop sexual assault is in caring for and respecting each other.

However, Grant also expressed firm belief in the effectiveness of strict penal action.

“Holding folks accountable for any type of misconduct leads to greater understanding, greater growth [and] a change in behavior,” Grant said.

Zoner expressed a similar sentiment, arguing that it is important to demonstrate that actions have repercussions.

She also stressed the ambiguous nature of sexual crimes and misconduct, which she said usually involve “two people away from other witnesses.” Typically in sexual assault cases, gathering evidence is difficult; even when evidence is attainable, how it got there is often brought into question, Zoner said.

Zoner emphasized that alcohol is often involved in sexual assault cases, which contributes to confusion over the facts of the case as “recollection is very difficult.”

The sexual assault policy changes were made in compliance with Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational institutions.

“By lowering the standard of proof to ‘more likely than not,’ we are giving each person the same burden [of proof],” Grant said.

Grant responded to Heise’s concerns about the changes in the University’s policy, saying the change still allows room for defense and appellate action. She said that for both parties involved in sexual assault proceedings, the new procedure “does not remove their voice; it enhances their voice.”

Terrones, a member of the Women’s Resource Center, expressed support of the move from an oral hearing to a written procedure, citing her interactions with victims of sexual assault who had opted not to report the attacks due to the daunting task of verbally recounting their experience.

“The most terrifying thing is getting in front of the panel and telling their story in front of the person they are accusing,” Terrones said.

Original Author: Talia Jubas