WHISNANT: Take back the process

The University should enact stricter policies against gender violence

This week, the University’s student body is committing to Take Back the Night. For the enormous population of students who care passionately about gender violence issues, panels on supporting survivors, bystander intervention workshops and an open arts slam — among other events — are valuable stepping stones on the road to a gender violence-free community. For survivors of sexual violence, these events have the potential to be cathartic and tremendously educational for the broader University community.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of Take Back the Night is limited in the self-selection of its attendees. Short of doing the impossible and mandating every student’s attendance, there is no way for Take Back the Night to take its message to everyone. This is especially problematic given that the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the country’s largest anti-gender violence organization, points to research that 90 percent of rapes on college campuses are committed by only 3 percent of men. Rather than a wide swath of the collegiate community, there is a dangerous minority that has made rape and gender violence a lifestyle choice. Given that it is highly unlikely repeat perpetrators of sexual violence are reachable through more outreach, raising awareness of rape culture must be coupled with policy changes that target perpetrators and effectively remove them from the community.

To address issues around the adjudication of gender violence cases, the RAINN report recommends that colleges “de-emphasize internal judicial boards” like the University’s Sexual Misconduct Board (full disclosure: I sit on the SMB) that have historically struggled in handling the complex issues of gender violence. While the internal process has had its share of issues at various institutions nationwide, Dean Eramo states that sexual assault cases at the University are managed by “professional staff who are specially trained to manage these often very complicated cases,” in a way other institutions may not. Because it operates based on a “preponderance of evidence” standard based on Title IX and not a “beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” the University’s internal institutions for sanctioning perpetrators of gender violence are often able to reach appropriate outcomes in “word against word” cases in a way the traditional legal system is not, because of the role of circumstantial evidence.

The University is responding to new federal policy and intensifying its commitment to fighting gender violence by making dating, domestic violence and stalking stand alone charges rather than falling under the vague umbrella of sexual harassment. Changes like these will bring clarity to sentencing and illustrate more clearly that gender-based violence doesn’t begin and end with rape.

Policy changes shouldn’t end with refining definitions of sexual harassment. As recommended by the Sexual Assault Leadership Council co-chair Emily Renda, the Sexual Misconduct Board should consider codifying suspension until absence — in which a student found guilty of sexual misconduct would be suspended until the victim graduates — as a punishment for sexual assault. The option of expulsion is always available as mandated by Title IX, but a written University guideline would ensure that those found guilty of sexual violence merit total rejection from the community of trust. Until that changes, the Sexual Misconduct Board is compelled to consider a wide range of punishments.

The University itself can also take more action on raising awareness to complement the work of independent groups. Take Back the Night and organizations like One in Four and One Less do valuable work in explaining what rape is and how to prevent it, but the University should distribute pamphlets at the beginning of orientation to all first year students to make them aware of the resources available to them if they have experienced gender violence. The longer a victim is confused about where to turn after an assault, the more difficult it becomes to find the truth.

Take Back the Night week offers the University a unique opportunity to publicly stand in solidarity with survivors of gender-based violence. As the week draws to a close, we should strive to make sure our policy reflects that solidarity as much as possible.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

Published April 16, 2014 in Opinion

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