The U.S. Department of Education released a new set of rules for college campuses that make provisions for changes to the Violence Against Women Act and the Clery Act.
These rules include providing mandatory sexual assault trainings, disclosing “unfounded” reports of sexual assault, using the preponderance of evidence standard in sexual assault cases and allowing for students to have independent advisors during proceedings.
Colleges are required to comply to these rules by July 2015 and to make a good-faith attempt in the meantime.
Rice University currently has most of these new rules already in place as part of recent efforts to provide training and resources as well as the introduction of the Sexual Misconduct Policy earlier this year.
Sexual Assault Training
According to Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson, Rice provides sexual harassment training that is mandatory for faculty, staff and graduate students.
As of now, the online sexual harassment training emailed out to undergraduate students is considered mandatory, but participation is not regulated.
“Technically, that’s mandatory, but right now we haven’t put any consequences in place for people who haven’t participated,” Hutchinson said. “We will soon be adding consequences for not participating.”
According to Student Wellbeing Director Kate Noonan, many staff and faculty members have undergone Title IX training in order to better assist students.
“This semester alone, Student Wellbeing has provided training to many key faculty and staff, including masters, RAs and over 15 departments who work closely with students, and to student advisors for O-Week,” Noonan said. “This training covers Title IX responsibilities and our sexual misconduct policy at Rice as well as how to connect students with the resources available to them on and off campus.”
Student Wellbeing Specialist Kate Hildebrandt said. in addition to Title IX training, Rice uses the Project SAFE initiative to promote discussion and to address issues surrounding assault on campuses.
“All incoming students and advisers receive training through Project SAFE, and we offer ongoing sessions throughout the year,’ Hildebrandt said. “We’re also really excited to expand our trainings in the coming semesters to talk about topics like healthy relationships, healthy sexuality and shifting the norms of rape culture.”
“Unfounded” Reports of Sexual Assaults
The new federal rules also require that colleges provide campus crime statistics that include “unfounded” reports of sexual assault. Rice currently does not follow this policy, but plans to do so in the future, according to Hutchinson.
“I think ‘unfounded’ is a poor word ... because we might find [a case] ‘not in violation’ only because the evidence is insufficient to find ‘in violation,’” Hutchinson said. “That doesn’t mean it was unfounded, it just means that there wasn’t a preponderance of the evidence to find in violation.”
While Hutchinson said Rice does not report unfounded claims, he also said he does not see any difficulty in following this protocol.
“I was surprised when I saw it, because I recognized it as a change, but it’s a change we can easily adapt to,” Hutchinson said.
Preponderance of Evidence
Another nationwide change on campuses outlined by the federal rules is a shift to using the “preponderance of evidence” standard in sexual assault cases instead of the more rigorous “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
Rice already uses the “preponderance of evidence” criteria in issues involving sexual assault, and according to Hutchinson, this measure is a more appropriate one given the sensitive nature of these cases.
“Our standard at the university is to make sure we have an environment where students can study or live without fear of harassment or assault or any form of sexual discrimination,” Hutchinson said. “Any time we have an allegation that comes forward where the preponderance of the evidence tells us in fact that we have created an environment where discrimination has occurred, and in some cases the discrimination may go all the way to the point of sexual assault, then we need to act on that. We’re trying to preserve the safe environment for all of our students.”
The federal rules also require that alleged victims and perpetrators be allowed to have an independent advisor, such as a parent or lawyer, to support them throughout the process.
Rice’s Sexual Misconduct Policy from earlier this year allows for the inclusion of such advisors, who, according to Hutchinson, can provide students with advice and moral support.
Associate Dean of Undergraduates Matthew Taylor, who is the chair of Rice's Working Group on University Responses to Federal Initiatives on Sexual Assault, said knowing they are allowed to have advisors might encourage students to report sexual assault while also providing advice and perspective.
“Those situations are difficult situations, whether it’s a hearing or an informal meeting, and. in my experience, students in those situations oftentimes don’t necessarily have clarity on what’s being said to them or even on what they’re saying,” Taylor said. “These are very intense meetings because they are addressing very serious questions. Having someone familiar nearby as a support can help.”
The federal rules, however, do not include affirmative consent as a legal definition.
According to Hutchinson, affirmative consent, given either through words or actions, is a part of Rice’s policy and an important component of healthy, mutual sexual relationships.
“Affirmative consent as a standard protects an individual from being a passive victim of someone else’s behavior,” Hutchinson said. “A sexual relationship should be a mutually consensual relationship at the outset and throughout the entire sexual relationship, and that requires affirmative consent.”