BARROW: A better definition of honor

The University should reevaluate the system in place for handling sexual misconduct cases

The academic expectations at the University are rigorous, but above all else, our University is known for its high expectations of the student body in regards to their honor. The famous student-enforced Honor system at the University presents cases to juries of students who decide the fate of the accused. This process puts the power of the Honor Code in the hands of the student body, where it is often held with the utmost regard. It is a common belief that “letting slide” one offense puts into question the honor of the entire University as a whole, and therefore we have established the “one and done” single-sanction policy. This somewhat controversial method has again and again been defended by the student body as a staple of the culture that forms the ties of our community at the University. As such an integral aspect of the academic culture at the University, why does this belief not extend to the processes set up to handle sexual misconduct?

An estimated 20 percent of college-aged women have experienced a sexual assault. What honorable measures has our University taken to protect its students from becoming part of this statistic? It has developed the Sexual Misconduct Board (SMB), which is “a body of faculty, professional staff, and students who are trained to apply the Sexual Misconduct Policy… [and] delegated the authority to hear and resolve all complaints brought under the Sexual Misconduct Policy.” The lack of serious consequences resulting from adjudication in the cases heard thus far makes it difficult to hold this Board in as high esteem. Is it “honorable” for the University to handle sexual misconduct cases internally, rather than turning them over to the criminal justice system, which could file more serious felony charges?

The FBI estimates that only 2-8 percent of reported sexual assault allegations are false or unfounded. Additionally, our University is obligated by Title IX to adjudicate sexual misconduct cases based on a “preponderance” of evidence, rather than the “clear and convincing” approach that is currently utilized by some institutions. Given these facts, it seems incredible that the SMB has not heard a single case that should have warranted expulsion. In fact, if we look at the history of the twenty-two cases heard by the SMB since 1998, we see that 11 were found not guilty, 10 were found guilty, and one even admitted his guilt. However, no student has been asked to leave for sexual misconduct in the past ten years.

How can we so easily dismiss students for lying or cheating when perpetrators of sexual offenses remain here completely untarnished? How is it feasible that cheaters and liars are forever labeled and mistrusted by our community from one incident, but sexual offenders receive (barely) a slap on the wrist? Does it make sense that — at a University where this policy has led to the so-called “Community of Trust” that grants students the peace of mind to leave their laptops unwatched in our libraries — the Honor system does not extend to the personal safety of walking home alone after dark? Clearly we see what is considered important in University culture.

The University did not operate under a “preponderance of evidence” standard until May 2011. Despite the change, an accuser still requires a unanimous decision from the Sexual Misconduct Board for a guilty adjudication. The Department of Education recently placed the University under review for its sexual misconduct policies. The concern of our national Department of Education, paired with the testimonies of various students and the culture of the University as a whole, points to cracks in the system that need to be filled. At a University that places such an intense focus on “honor,” one would think that an honor offense of the most severe nature would warrant the expulsion that copying French homework does, but this is clearly not the case. Do we need to mandate a policy where all students must sign an “Honor Pledge” after each term stating, “On my honor as a student, I have neither committed nor attempted rape during this semester” for the Honor Code to apply to sexual assault?

The University needs a serious reevaluation of the systems set up to handle sexual misconduct cases. We — as members of this community — should be more aware of the offenses that occur and the processes executed to deal with them. This lack of honor at the hands of our own University, in the face of the stringent expectation placed upon students, creates a wedge of injustice that lodges in the deepest core of the foundation of our institution. Our University should be striving to protect its students, not its name. I hope to further instigate an open and honest dialogue within our community about the reality of sexual misconduct and how it is handled at the University.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Olivia Barrow is a third-year in the College.

Correction: an earlier version of this column stated the University was out of compliance with the law by not using the preponderance of evidence standard before 2011. The column has been amended to reflect that the University was not legally obligated to follow that standard. The earlier version of the column also stated that students who report sexual misconduct are encouraged to go through mediation with the accused attacker. This statement has been removed, as this procedure is no longer part of the University’s policy.

Published April 16, 2014 in Opinion

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