Office for Civil Rights investigates UW for handling of sexual assault cases

Ellen Taylor is the Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Director of the Counseling Center as well as Chair of the UW President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. The Task Force was appointed by former UW President Young and was directed to “review our current policies and practices, explore best practices from other institutions, develop new practices to fill any gaps, and propose a plan for their implementation.” Photo by Kaia D’Albora

The UW is one of over 100 colleges currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for the handling of sexual assault cases.

A press release distributed by the UW on June 15 said the university “fail[ed] to provide the student with a prompt and equitable grievance process after the student reported an incident of sexual violence,” in a particular case, breaking the rules set by Title IX of 1972.

Title IX primarily prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded program or activity. The principal objective of Title IX is to avoid the use of federal funds “to support sex discrimination in education programs and to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices,” according to the Department of Justice.

In the OCR’s 53-page document, “Questions and Answers for Title IX and Sexual Violence,” sexual violence is defined as “physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent.”

A complaint to the OCR must be made within 180 days of the alleged assault, unless the OCR finds good reason for it to have taken longer. If the complainant uses an institutional grievance process, or chooses to file a report through their university, and then additionally files a complaint with the OCR, the latter must be filed within 60 days after the institutional grievance process is finished.

Via The Daily

The UW’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Task Force, implemented by former President Michael Young in 2013, is working to create a sexual assault reporting and support website and to provide additional prevention, response, and bystander intervention training.

Amanda Paye is the UW’s Title IX coordinator, a position created three years ago due to the task force’s recommendation.

“This is honestly very new for us, so we’re still learning what we need to do,” Paye said. “What we really encourage is that anyone who has concerns about themselves or another person to come forward and get help. So if that’s us or another agency, it’s all good.”

However, some aren’t satisfied by the way the UW has historically handled sexual assault cases.

Mitchel Aman, the incoming director of Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Activists, said they weren’t surprised by the investigation.

“I’ve heard a lot about UW sweeping people under the rug and just not addressing their cases as well as people would like,” Aman said. “I’m actually really glad that someone filed it because I think UW needs to update its policies and update its student policies.”

One of the problems Aman mentioned was the fact that the UW doesn’t have long-term counseling. 

According to the UW Counseling Center website, longer-term counseling happens through an outside provider. Should the “intake counselor,” who can take one to two weeks to make an appointment, agree to short-term counseling services, it may take an additional one to two weeks to meet with that assigned counselor. The average length of short-term counseling is four to six sessions.

Ellen Taylor, chair of the task force, is working with the OCR and providing them the information requested, but said it is a long process.

“Many people think of Title IX as being athletics, for women to participate as student athletes and have access to scholarships and stuff, so Title IX is extremely broad,” Taylor said. “It’s so case-by-case specific.”

Ultimately, she explained, students have two processes they can choose from for pursuing a sexual assault case: the legal process or the administrative process. 

The legal process goes from the police to the prosecutor and possibly to trial. In those cases, the prosecution needs to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

The administrative process involves filing a report with UW entity Community Standards and Student Conduct and conducting an investigation involving all witnesses, but there’s a different standard of evidence: preponderance of evidence. This means the investigation’s outcome depends on whichever side’s evidence is more convincing, or whether the person filing the report can prove there is a greater than 50 percent chance the accused did the wrong.

The sanctions for both are entirely different. The legal process can result in fines or jail time, while the administrative process can result in community service, probation, suspension, or expulsion.

Statistics compiled and published by The Huffington Post last September show less than one-third of students found responsible for sexual assault are expelled.

“Our goal is that we would treat every student exactly the same,” Taylor said. “What we know is that sexual assault happens in all permutations of gender identity and gender expression and we would treat it equally regardless.”

While investigating sexual assault cases, the UW works with and agrees to terms set forth by the Association for Student Conduct Administration (ASCA). 

The ASCA released a Gold Standard Report in 2014, advising schools on how to handle such cases. The report frequently refers to sexual harassment as “sexual misconduct,” using the term “rape” only when discussing the legal process that universities don’t use.

In the report, ASCA specifies that campuses are not court rooms.

“We do not find students ‘guilty’ of crimes such as rape or murder, but we have an obligation to determine whether they are responsible for conduct that threatens the health or safety of another person, including sexual misconduct,” the report stated.

It also states colleges would not call killing someone an act of “murder,” but a part of physical abuse or physical harm, stating their “response to sexual assault is similar.”

Responses to such cases are listed as educational and preventative. Although it doesn’t mention the types of sanctions, the ASCA suggests colleges to “think beyond sanctions.”

The UW has attempted to implement that through programs like Green Dot and the aforementioned sexual assault reporting and support website.

“It’s not so much about creating new programs as it is about expanding and enhancing the scope of the programs we’ve already had in place,” Taylor said. 

Although there are new services the task force is making available, the UW still doesn’t have rape kits. Instead, the university sends students to Harborview Medical Center.

According to Aman, the process for a student to file for sexual assault requires a 30-day investigation. Then, the faculty appeal board has 30 days to give a hearing date if the student decides to appeal. After the hearing date, the board has 90 days to decide. 

During the entire adjudicative process, the accused is permitted to stay on campus.

“Now that we’re being investigated, I think that a lot of things need to change and a lot of attitudes need to change too,” Aman said. “The UW needs to stop relying on activists to make change and do that within the university.”

In an email to UW students and faculty, Interim President Ana Mari Cauce said sexual assault and harassment is “intolerable.”

“The University will continue its efforts to improve its processes,” Cauce said, “to educate and inform students, faculty, and staff about sexual harassment and assault in an effort to reduce its occurrence, and to hold persons accountable when it does happen.”

The task force is scheduled to conduct a two-year review in November of this year. 

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