November 11, 2014

As Cornell Officials Revisit Policy 6.4, Students Recount, Criticize Process

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Editor’s note: The name of a Cornellian interviewed who reported being sexually assaulted to the University is being kept confidential to ensure she is given the privacy she has requested.

After being sexually assaulted, she was terrified of running into him with his friends at the dining halls.

“I was just scared because the person who assaults you, when you report it, they know you reported it because they have to go in to talk with the investigator,” Sarah said.

Sarah is just one of a number of Cornellians who report being sexually assaulted each year. Between 2010 and 2012, 19 individuals reported being sexually assaulted on campus, according to a data analysis by The Washington Post. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their college years.

At Cornell, the handling of discrimination, bias and sexual assault incidents is detailed in Policy 6.4, a 61 page document that has drawn criticism from students, including those at the “Protest Against Rape Culture” on Sept. 30, for its perceived lack of disciplinary action against offenders.

Students experiencing Policy 6.4 firsthand after they reported bias or sexual violence incidents said they dealt with many unpleasant experiences, including running into the perpetrators on campus and the stigma associated with sexual assault.

A ‘Very Shameful and Embarrassing Time’

Sarah, who said a student sexually assaulted her in the spring semester of her freshman year, said reporting the incident to the University was a “really hard process emotionally.”

Sarah said she had met the alleged perpetrator through women in her sorority and went to a formal with him. On the day of the incident, she went to his dorm at 7 p.m. after he asked her to come over and do homework together.

She reported being sexually assaulted the night of the incident to officers from the Ithaca Police Department, who referred her to Judicial Administrator Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88. The officers also asked for the perpetrator’s phone number and talked him that night, according to Sarah.

At Sarah’s first meeting with Grant, she told Grant the entire story, including everything leading up to the incident. Sarah said she accepted the option of filling a “no-contact order” against the accused, which meant the accused would face severe consequences if he contacted her.

“I had requested that besides any punishment against him that he would also have to take some sort of class on consent,” Sarah said. “He was very misogynistic, and I wanted him to take a class that would make him respect women more.”

The investigation of Sarah’s case lasted about three weeks. According to Policy 6.4, the length of investigation varies on a case-by-case basis but must be completed within 60 days.

During this time, Sarah said she did not interact with any investigators except for Grant, who Sarah met with approximately four times. Grant acted as a “liaison” and connected Sarah with Gannett Health Services’ Counseling and Psychological Services.

Grant also asked Sarah and the perpetrator to submit the names and contact information of friends and acquaintances who could testify about the case.

According to Sarah, these people spoke individually to Grant and were kept anonymous; neither Sarah nor the perpetrator were told who testified.

When the results of the investigation were released, Grant met with Sarah to talk about what was going to happen.

“She laid out what steps he had to take after the investigation when he was found responsible. He wasn’t going to be suspended from school. He wasn’t expelled from Cornell campus,” Sarah said. “He had to do certain things like take certain classes and complete a series of requirements.”

‘I Felt Really Unsafe’

During the investigation, Sarah said she “felt really unsafe.”

Immediately after she reported the case, a number of the perpetrator’s fraternity brothers contacted her, she said.

“A number of his brothers had texted me, like guilt-tripping me about it, but the chapter president called me and said, ‘I’m so sorry if you’re getting any shit from the brothers, we all support you, and what the guy did was wrong,’” Sarah said.

Sarah also said she felt “very uncomfortable” living on the same campus as the perpetrator.

“Even though I had this paper [the no-contact form] that said he couldn’t contact me, we were on North Campus together. I literally passed him every day. I at least wanted him to be moved to another part of campus so that we didn’t have to cross paths,” Sarah said. “I would go all the way to the back door of [my dorm] to get in, because I just couldn’t take my normal route every day.”

Daniel Manne grad — who has served as an attorney representing victims of sexual assault on college campuses — said the campus “is a small world” when it comes to these cases.

“All too frequently, fraternities, sororities or graduate departments learn about the alleged assault and the ongoing investigation. This can often make things difficult for both the accuser and the accused,” Manne said.

Manne, who has not advised any Cornell students, said that most of his interactions have been with administrators from other colleges concerning deficiencies in their procedures.

Sixty-one Pages

The University’s current procedures, as detailed in Policy 6.4, were last updated on Nov. 7, 2013. The document lays out how the Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations or the Office of the Judicial Administrator should handle and investigate complaints of bias and sexual assault.

Complaints brought by faculty or staff members must be filed with the Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations and the Office of the Judicial Administrator within six months of the incidents. Students must bring up complaints within one year of the incident, according to Policy 6.4, though there are some exceptions — including complaints where the accused is a faculty member.

As stated in Policy 6.4, the J.A. or the Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations have the “exclusive responsibility” for accepting and processing these complaints. If the offices decide to accept the complaint, they notify the accused that he or she has been named in a complaint. The accused student is given a copy of the written complaint and the identity of the complainant, according to Grant.

During the formal investigation, usually a team of two investigators — who are trained in legal and sexual assault issues — reviews each complaint by interviewing the accusing and accused students, witnesses and other forms of evidence, according to Grant.

Policy 6.4 states that both the accused and accusing person should be kept updated about the investigation and are allowed to seek advice from personal attorneys or advisors. These advisors can neither respond to questions for their advisees nor ask questions during the advisees’ interviews.

Both the accused and accusing people are allowed to submit questions for the investigator to pose to the other party or to witnesses, Grant said.

The lead investigator issues a written report summarizing the case. A panel of trained faculty review the report, which contains the investigator’s recommendations, and determine whether University policy is violated, according to Grant. Under Policy 6.4, both the accused and accusing people should be given copies of the investigation summary and are given 10 business days to appeal the decision.

According to Lynette Chappell-Williams, one of Cornell’s Title IX Coordinators, the administration is currently revising Policy 6.4 to “incorporate the latest thinking about best practices” and recommended changes will be ready later this academic year.

“We are continuously reviewing our procedures for addressing sexual violence to provide effective avenues for complainants to bring issues of sexual violence forward while balancing the fair process rights of the complainant and the respondent,” Chappell-Williams said. “Our next step is to engage the community in this revision process which includes reviewing the definition of consent.”

An Oral Warning

Students have criticized Policy 6.4 for stating that disciplinary action for harassment, including sexual violence, can include “an oral or written warning.”

Philip Titcomb ’17,  LGBTQ representative at-large for the Student Assembly, said such warnings are “highly demeaning and trivializing to survivors of bias incidents and sexual assaults.”

However, no information is available about what disciplinary actions members of the Cornell community may face for harassment or sexual violence. Yamini Bhandari ’17, vice president for outreach and women’s representative for the S.A., said that the range of disciplinary actions perpetrators actually receive should be clarified.

“There is a lack of clarity for who actually gets the oral warning, and I think that has contributed to some of the pushback from the Cornell public,” Bhandari said. “I do, however, agree that an oral warning is by no means enough of a punishment for someone committing such a serious crime.”

Even when the punishments are harsher, they may not be effective at changing the perpetrator’s perspective, according to Sarah.

“[The guy] still doesn’t think that anything happened. They don’t think anything of it,” Sarah said. “I was hoping that he would at least get suspended, because I don’t think he understood how serious it was. Him taking classes was just like, ‘So what, this wasn’t really serious.’”

‘With the Utmost Care’

Despite the policy’s many faults and complexities, several students said that for the most part, their personal interactions with University administrators were positive.

“[Grant] was very helpful and sweet. She has daughters, so she is very empathetic to how people feel when they’ve gone through stuff like [sexual violence],” Sarah said.

Titcomb, who reported a bias incident in March after a student physically attacked him and called him a “faggot” in Robert Purcell Community Center, said that the judicial administrator dealt with his case “with the utmost care,” though he said the reporting process was lengthy.

“The only qualm I have is that despite being attacked in early March last semester, no discipline had been taken until late October,” Titcomb said. “The process is touted as streamlined, but this is not the case.”

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