Statement to the University Community Regarding Sexual Assault Policies and Practices
Patricia M. Lampkin, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer
November 22, 2004
The University's handling of certain sexual assault cases among students has been much discussed in recent weeks. Student leaders and the University's administrators are equally concerned that at least some victims or survivors of sexual assault are reluctant to seek help from the police or the University, and that some of those who seek help find the level of support unsatisfactory. We are committed to addressing these issues and to ensuring that communication about sexual assault is broad and clear throughout the community.
This statement addresses some of the information that has been presented in print and on the Web about the protocols in place here and at most other universities. While it would be inappropriate to discuss the details of particular cases, remedying flaws and improving the response system requires an accurate description of the policies and services relevant to sexual assaults, and in some instances also of legal realities. We are committed to continuously assessing our work in this area, and to making needed improvements whenever needs appear. This statement also outlines changes currently being pursued.
Policies and Procedures
The policy specifically prohibiting sexual assault has been in place since 1983, as has the Sexual Assault Board, which is the entity charged with hearing charges of sexual assault between students and assessing punishments when that is necessary. Faculty members and students sit together on the Board and receive training in connection with their duties. Although we recognize that procedures must evolve constantly as laws and community issues change, this Sexual Assault Board conforms to current standards of best practice in universities of our kind.
Several University entities have obligations to respond quickly and supportively when survivors report sexual assaults. The University Police Department, the Hospital Emergency Department, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Women's Center Office of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services, and Resident Staff all work with victims or survivors to evaluate their immediate and long-term health and safety needs, and to support them through medical and legal processes. Professionals in the Department of Student Health provide counseling, and the counseling center staff includes a specialist in sexual assault issues. The University contracts with the independent, Charlottesville-based Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA) to provide students with crisis response, counseling, and companion services.
Sexual assault victims or survivors can and do approach different entities for help. They have the right to choose how they prefer to use these services. Between January 2003 and May 2004, some 35 University students went to SARA for help. During the same period, 20 students went to the Women's Center Office of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services; twelve went to the University Police; and seven went to the Office of the Dean of Students. Double reporting may be present in these data because students sometimes seek help from multiple sources. To protect victims' or survivors' right to confidentiality, names are not shared among entities, with the exception of the Dean of Students and University Police.
In reporting these numbers, we recognize that some students may not seek help from any public or University entity. Under-reporting of sexual assault is a valid concern nationwide. Although controversy exists about the scale of under-reporting, the research effectively establishes that under-reporting occurs, probably commonly. We are committed to continual improvements in our outreach and education efforts to encourage more survivors to get help, and if they desire, to seek adjudication.
When students seek help in the aftermath of a sexual assault, University officials explain the importance of reporting the incident to appropriate criminal justice authorities, including the police and Commonwealth Attorney's Office. The complex nature of acquaintance assault coupled with the nature of proof required in the criminal justice system may persuade a prosecutor's not to take some cases forward. For this reason, if the student desires, the University will also assist and support the student in arranging a meeting with the Commonwealth's Attorney to discuss why the case was not criminally prosecuted.
Students who want to pursue non-criminal options within the University can choose one or more options that were developed to maximize the alternatives available to students. They include: 1) mediation, which is entirely voluntary and involves only the accuser, the accused, and a trained mediator; 2) a structured meeting, which involves a limited number of participants and may result in a ruling and imposition of protective measures, but does not involve a formal sanction; and 3) formal adjudication by the Sexual Assault Board. These options are described in the University's Sexual Assault Procedures.
Education and Prevention Efforts
Over the past two decades, the University's educational efforts have grown. In 1991 the Sexual Assault Education Office, now the Office of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services, was established within the Women's Center to direct and coordinate these initiatives. Sexual assault is now included as a topic during "Grounds for Discussion" at Orientation, during New Student Convocation, in the President's remarks to parents during opening weekend and again at Family Weekend, in training for members of the residence life staff, in the residence hall safety talks, and in mandatory fraternity and sorority chapter education. In addition, two extensively trained student organizations -- SAFE (Sexual Assault Facts and Education) and One in Four (all men, specializing in programs for men) -- offer prevention programs and peer support. Peer Health Educators, another peer-support organization, works with Student Health to promote sound health practices among students. This program includes education on sexual behavior.
Educational campaigns occur throughout the school year. This month, a new campaign was launched to raise awareness of consent and to provide guidance on knowing when approval to engage in sexual activity is clearly being granted. Related programs and campaigns, including those focusing on abuse of alcohol and the consequence of unwanted or regretted sexual activity, educate students on these and similar matters.
Challenges We Face
Sexual assault between students, including those who are acquainted, is a serious and complex student life issue. The freedom that young men and women find in college may contribute to the environment in which unplanned sexual encounters occur, especially so when one party becomes powerless to reverse the situation. The University recognizes the emotional, physical and academic price that attaches to sexual assault, and offers multiple supports and resources to assist students who experience sexual assault. Like most other public universities, the University strives to provide a supportive, rigorous, and fair system for addressing sexual assault within the community.
As a public institution, the University must afford due process to any student or students involved in a sexual assault case, and further respect the federal laws protecting the confidentiality of proceedings and privacy rights of both students. The Sexual Assault Board faces particularly complex challenges in its obligation both to maintain the confidentiality required by law while also to provide necessary protections for victims or survivors of sexual assault and the community at large.
Our policies are designed to guide us, state what we will not tolerate, and stipulate how we will determine factual disputes and appropriate sanctions when guilt is proven. Changes in Federal law require that the outcome of the sexual assault hearing must be shared with both the accuser and the accused. This has been the University's practice without exception. The University also annually releases sexual assault statistics in compliance with the federal Clery Act and reports incidents that threaten the community. While the University believes its confidentiality policies are in compliance with federal law, in light of a recent ruling issued by the Department of Education involving Georgetown University, it is reviewing them with General Counsel to be sure they strike an appropriate and lawful balance between the rights and interests of the immediate parties and the greater community.
Current Reviews and Next Steps
These changes to the sexual assault procedures and resources are now in process or under consideration:
- Enhancing training for members of the Sexual Assault Board. Nationally recognized authorities on sexual assault adjudication and support will take part in a comprehensive program to be established by January 31, 2005.
- Revising the sexual assault procedures. These procedures are currently being reviewed by identified student focus groups. The changes being discussed include:
- Adding a separate offense of "Sexual Misconduct" to encourage more reporting of cases.
- Conducting a comprehensive pre-hearing investigation as a means to streamline hearings and to collect relevant information.
- Decreasing the size of the Sexual Assault Board hearing panel from five to three panelists. With fewer schedules to coordinate, the hearings process can move more quickly and efficiently than it now does.
- Streamlining the number of entities students have available to report sexual assault as well as the investigative bodies that serve students seeking University sexual assault adjudication.
- Improving communications so that victims or survivors of sexual assault can immediately and easily learn about sources of support and assistance. This improved protocol (including clearer guidelines, a checklist of procedures, and improved Web site navigation to critical resources) is to be implemented by January 31, 2005. The University community will be informed when these revised procedures are in place via e-mail and other media (e.g., targeted outreach to student organizations).
Sexual assault is a serious, violent crime that has no place in any community, and that no one can justify in a community built on mutual trust among students. Sexual violence between acquainted students is no less serious and equally unlawful. The University is committed to building a community where mutual respect extends to the most intimate student encounters and relationships, and it expects students to contribute to achieving this goal. As essential partners with the University in addressing these very serious issues, students must exhibit care and concern for one another. We share responsibility. When educational efforts or personal responsibility fall short and sexual assaults do occur, we will treat them with fair policies but also with approaches that are sensitive, supportive, and as comprehensive as possible. We welcome your comments and concerns as we continue to address this serious issue. Comments can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Statement from President John T. Casteen III, November 22, 2004