Students rally for harsher punishments for sexual crimes
SpeakUpUVa petition gathers 520 signature
Though subjecting sexual assault perpetrators to Honor trials under the single sanction is not likely in the near future, more viable policy options do exist.
A petition filed in late January through Student Council’s SpeakUpUVa website proposing that sexual assault be made a University honor offense has made waves in the University community. The proposal has gathered more than 500 signatures, making it the fifth most popular petition since the website’s inception.
Third-year College student Amy Miller posted the proposal.
“No individual should EVER feel unprotected at the University of Virginia, a place which I personally call home, and it is a extremely disappointing that our Honor system does not even care to acknowledge the subject,” the petition reads. “If an individual can get away with a serious, life-damaging offense at UVA, we are only sending the message that it is acceptable not only here, but within the rest of society.”
Though the idea has gained significant traction, there are severe legal boundaries which prevent the Honor Committee from adding sexual assault to its jurisdiction.
The Honor Committee’s trials operate on a 99 percent standard of proof, or “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This standard is stricter than that for sexual assault cases as mandated by Title IX, the 1972 federal rights legislation barring educational discrimination on the basis of sex. In the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights mandated that under Title IX, colleges must have a comprehensive system to deal with complaints of sexual violence or risk losing significant federal funding.
“The standard of proof level [of the Honor Committee] would actually constitute a violation of a federal law if we were to try to incorporate it,” said fourth-year College student Emily Renda, co-chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council.
Additionally, the Honor Committee would likely face due process issues if it were to accept cases in which an individual has already been convicted of a sexual assault offense.
“You would prejudice the jury, because the offender has already been found responsible on a lower standard of proof, so you would basically have a biased trial going in,” Renda said.
Miller acknowledges the Committee’s legal limitations prevent her petition from being enacted as written.
“I do understand it is more of a federal government issue and not necessarily a college issue, but I think they need to start somewhere,” Miller said.
Student Council President Eric McDaniel, a fourth-year College student, said the SpeakUpUVa petition was a good way for students to have Council address their concerns, but that it certainly has its limitations.
“Even if we can’t resolve larger scale projects through the SpeakUpUVa petition system, it’s a great way for students to quantify their support of an idea to demonstrate how popular a particular cause is,” McDaniel said.
The issue of how the University handles sexual misconduct is one such issue likely outside of Student Council’s jurisdiction.
Though subjecting sexual assault perpetrators to Honor Committee trials under the single sanction is not likely in the near future, more viable policy options do exist.
Suspension until absence — which would not expel a student, but rather temporarily remove them from the community of trust — is one possible policy Renda says should be considered. Under that policy, an individual found guilty of sexual misconduct would be suspended until the victim has completed his or her time at the University.
“[Suspension until absence] is like the step down from expulsion,” Renda said. “You still guarantee that person an education in the future, but you send them away until they are able to fairly share spaces with other people without fundamentally damaging their lives.”
The Sexual Misconduct Board, the University body which handles sexual assault cases, is required by federal law to consider expulsion in all cases. Additionally, in cases where a student has already been criminally convicted of sexual assault, the University is given access to evidence gained through the court’s’ subpoena power, making it easier to expel a convicted offender.
But Renda said sexual misconduct cases are not frequently taken to court, and successfully prosecuted felony rape cases in the City of Charlottesville involving a student are uncommon.
“The reason that the school adjudication procedure and Title IX popped up in the first place is because criminal courts weren’t handling it — civil courts weren’t even handling it,” Renda said. “We were trying to come up with a way in the first place to protect students.”
The issue of sexual assault has garnered high levels of student engagement across Grounds, with numerous student organizations having formed to address the issue outside Honor and the University Judiciary Committee. One Less, a female sexual violence prevention group, and One in Four, an all-male anti-sexual assault group, both work to help victims and engage the community in a dialogue on the issue.
“One Less and One In Four feel that moral imperative very strongly,” Renda said. “This is a community of trust — what does that even mean if these things are still going on, and how do you approach it?”
One Less specifically focuses on the importance of bystander intervention as a means to maintain the University’s community of trust. Bystander intervention education teaches students to be aware of what’s occurring around them and intervene in problem situations.
One Less also works to make smaller-scale reforms to the way the Sexual Misconduct Board handles cases. The group helped push the separation of the role of the trial adjudicator from the counselor who works with survivors to provide support and resources. Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo formerly performed both tasks.
“She had no role in voting when it came to the trial, but she still presented the verdict, and going from this supportive person for the survivor to all of a sudden being neutral feels like an ultimate betrayal,” Renda said.
Associate Dean of Students Laurie Casteen now acts as the trial adjudicator.
Miller said victims too often are not told what resources are available to them.
“The biggest issue is that there’s definitely not a clear path being taken for victims,” Miller said. “Often victims don’t really know who they’re supposed to go to or how to get the whole process started to know that their concerns are seen as important.”