May 1, 2013

Forum Addresses Change to Policy On Sexual Assault at Cornell

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Cornell’s Title IX Coordinators, a group of faculty members who oversee concerns related to gender discrimination on campus, hosted an open forum Wednesday to discuss the University’s revisions to its sexual assault and harassment policy and procedure. If the revisions are approved, student complainants and respondents may move from testifying at hearings to writing their testimonies.

The coordinators of this change said they are seeking feedback from the Cornell community to ensure that they have taken the correct approach toward drafting the new policy and procedure, Policy 6.4.

At the forum, Prof. Dan Brown Ph.D. ’81, animal science, said the change to the policy — which proponents say would decrease the psychological burden for victims because they no longer have to be present at a hearing — cannot compensate for the trauma that sexual assault victims experience.

“There is nothing that Cornell can do to make up for what happened to a victim. There are no sanctions that Cornell can put out there that would be sufficient,” Brown said. “To me, you’re selling something to the victim that is false.”

Barbara Jastran, a clinical counselor at Gannett Health Services, however, said that for some victims of sexual assault and harassment, contact with the Judicial Administrator is sufficient.

“There are victims who felt that what they got from the JA was good,” Jastran said. “Just to know that the perpetrator was kicked out for this victim was enough.”

Other concerns, such as student involvement in the reviewing process, which were mentioned at previous sexual assault and harassment panels, continued to be a major topic of controversy at the open forum.

Brown argued that it is necessary to have a variety of people on a reviewing board, especially those who are more similar to both the victim and the accused.

“Victims and perpetrators are drawn from the student population and student culture, whose language, meanings and mannerisms are unique. Students should be on panel to advise members of panels of what is exactly being said because it isn’t always one hundred percent clear,” Brown said.

In response, Grant said students were removed from hearing boards by the request of victim’s rights advocates because victims faced stress when testifying personal information to students who they may see in social and academic situations. Students were removed from hearing boards about two months before the federal government issued the Dear Colleague Letter in 2011.

While there were many differences in opinion in many of the attendees, all of the panelists said there should be a change in the way sexual assault and harassment cases are handled in the ‘review stage’ under Policy 6.4

Alan Mittman, director of workforce policy and labor relations, proposed that two or three individuals, instead of only one, should be responsible for reviewing cases. He cited a past experience working on a sexual assault and harassment case brought against a faculty member by a student. During this case, he consulted an outside source because he did not “feel confident that he was able to interpret [the given information].”

Grant, who was the main speaker at the forum, said she was pleased to have feedback from the Cornell community about the changes to Policy 6.4.

“The folks involved in the process of writing and reviewing [the policy] are trying to look at the best interests of all parties involved. … During the debates, different folks have had different perspectives about who will benefit the most from this policy, but its not designed to give an advantage to any one person or another,” Grant said. “It’s designed to be fair to all parties.”

Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88 said the motivation behind Cornell’s shift in their approach to sexual assault and harassment is a combination of federal government encouragement and a push from the Cornell community.

Grant said that in 2011, the federal government issued guidelines in the Dear Colleague Letter, which urged colleges and universities to reconsider their respective policies and procedures and prompted Cornell to recognize improvements that can be made to its own system.

The Dear Colleague Letter was also issued around the time when Cornell’s campus reacted to a sharp increase in reported cases of sexual assault and harassment, according to Grant.

“For a number of years the momentum has been building to say let’s figure out if we’re doing this in the best way possible for all community members,” Grant said.

According to Title IX Coordinators, Cornell’s current sexual assault and harassment policies follow a three part system: investigation, review and appeal. Under Policy 6.4, the three stages of this system will remain intact. However, the operation of these individual stages will change. Some of these changes include how investigator’s results can be challenged, the maintenance of investigator neutrality and the manner in which review and appeals are conducted.

The group also hosted a forum at the Robert Purcell Community Center Wednesday night. Title IX will be accepting feedback until May 10, according to Grant.

Original Author: Alexa Davis