This summer, the University issued revisions to its sexual misconduct policy as part of a scheduled five-year reevaluation. These changes came under close scrutiny in light of new guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, as well as complaints about the University's handling of previous instances of sexual violence. Although there remain questions regarding the exact impact of the policy revisions, the new definitions and standards that the administration has established will serve to better protect those students who are most vulnerable to instances of sexual misconduct.
Among the changes is an expansion of the term "sexual misconduct" to include a more comprehensive variety of prohibited actions. Of particular importance is the revised definition of "sexual harassment," which now encompasses threats such as cyberstalking and relationship violence. In the case of cyberstalking, the new policy closes a loophole that for too long has convinced students to tolerate menacing or obnoxious behavior such as incessant text-messaging and emailing. This is a much needed update that keeps the University's approach to sexual misconduct in line with technological developments such as the proliferation of cell phones and school-issued email accounts.
Also significant is the expanded jurisdiction the University has claimed with regard to violations of its sexual misconduct policy. Previously, the policy only applied to actions that took place on University-owned or leased property or within the local residence of a student, faculty member, employee or visitor. The new policy, however, extends to any incident of sexual misconduct regardless of location. Given that more students are traveling together and communicating with one another remotely while off Grounds, it is encouraging to see the University strengthening its policy so it reaches sexually aggressive behavior that takes place on vacations, study abroad trips and while students are home for their academic breaks.
Finally, the University's new standard of evidence for convicting an individual of a policy violation shows a much greater awareness of the complexities surrounding many sexual misconduct cases. The new policy only requires a "preponderance of the evidence" be indicative of a violation for a conviction to be warranted, rather than the previous requirement that there be "clear and convincing evidence." In layman's terms, a "preponderance of the evidence" simply means that evidence "shows that it is 'more likely than not' that the accused student violated" the policy.
This addresses a glaring shortcoming in the current policy, which fails to acknowledge that few cases of rape or sexual assault feature "clear and convincing" facts. "The self doubt and confusion a survivor feels after experiencing an assault combined with a lack of knowledge of what to do and where to go in the hours after an assault makes hard evidence difficult to come by in some cases," Andrea Mousouris, a fourth-year College student and external chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council, said in an email. "For example, date rape drugs leave the system relatively quickly, so if you do not go to the hospital soon after, all evidence is lost." Although some might claim that this standard is too harsh, there are simple ways for individuals to avoid compromising situations that could lead to false accusations of sexual misconduct. Drinking responsibly at parties and respecting personal boundaries when communicating digitally, for example, would be a good start.
The University's new policy does not address past concerns about the punishments handed down to those guilty of sexual misconduct. This has been a lingering issue since former student Annie Hylton publicly criticized the University in 2004 for allowing another student, Matthew Hamilton, to remain enrolled after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting her. "The policy regarding sanctioning has not changed drastically," Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo said in an email. "The new version continues to require that the panel consider suspension or expulsion for a student found responsible of sexual misconduct. Given that there is a broader range of behaviors included under the term sexual misconduct ... it is hard to predict what the impact will be upon sanctioning."
Nevertheless, the University's policy revisions are a responsible and necessary step toward addressing what is among the most severe crises in American higher education. At a time when nearly one in five women experiences attempted or actual sexual assault while in college, the University should be praised for tailoring its sexual misconduct policy to account for evidentiary uncertainty and the evolving realities of student life.