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BERNSTEIN: A student-free SMB

Students should not be adjudicators on the Sexual Misconduct Board

Student self-governance is unique to our University and one of its most compelling features, but, as I have argued before, there are situations that merit its limitation. One such situation is the adjudication of sexual misconduct cases, overseen by the University’s Sexual Misconduct Board (SMB).

Currently, the SMB at the University consists of “faculty, professional staff, and students who are trained to apply the Sexual Misconduct Policy.” There are roughly 30 members, at least half of which are actually students, according to Nicole Eramo, associate dean of students and the current chair of the SMB. Student members either are nominated or nominate themselves, at which point Dean Eramo interviews them and passes recommended candidates on to the vice president, who makes a final determination. The interview process is largely informal — there is no official application, and there is no standard set of criteria, apart from more intangible qualities like maturity.

Student Board members go through the same extensive training as faculty and staff members, and their perspective is undoubtedly helpful. As Dean Eramo put it, “Students have a unique sense of what the environment is like. . . and they bring that perspective to a case.” But, unfortunately, what they also bring to a case is a higher potential for conflicts of interest.

Of course, if a student knows the accused or the complainant in a case, he cannot sit on the panel for that case. But an SMB member’s objectivity is questionable when another SMB member is involved, either as the accused, the complainant or a witness. For SMB members who are sitting on the case, the testimony of a fellow member may hold more weight than opposing testimonies.

Additionally, having a peer in the room could cause discomfort for any of the students involved in the case. While Dean Eramo said she has never experienced either a complainant or an accused expressing discomfort with having a student seated, she admits, “I recognize that they might not tell me if they were uncomfortable because that’s sort of the way the process is, and they may not think they have a say in it.”

Dean Eramo did note that student SMB members have expressed discomfort over interacting with students in the aftermath of a case. This is certainly not unique to the SMB; it probably occurs more frequently following UJC or Honor trials. But a victim of sexual assault or an alleged perpetrator of sexual assault probably feels much more significant emotional trauma following an SMB case.

It is possible that having a peer sit on the SMB could have the opposite effect and make the students in the case feel somewhat more comfortable knowing their perspectives have a voice on the panel. But the level of information — and the personal nature of that information — being shared with an unfamiliar peer is daunting. Our school has an active rumor mill, and while SMB members are undoubtedly well-trained and trustworthy, it’s not hard to see why a student may have concerns about the confidentiality of a case.

Dean Eramo noted that one major concern of complainants is “controlling information” — add to that the high chance of running into a student SMB member on Grounds, and the entire affair could become increasingly traumatic. Imagine describing an act of sexual violence taken against you, or being falsely accused of committing sexual violence, and then having to interact with a peer who not only helped determine the outcome of your case, but now knows intimate details about you that many might not know at all, details which you now are unable to control.

Even the federal government, with its current investigation into the University, may be evaluating the importance or appropriateness of student involvement in the SMB, while the SMB itself reevaluates these policies. That said, removing student involvement from the SMB seems somehow drastic. While retaining student members of the Board brings up many potential problems, it also preserves our commitment to maintaining our value for student input. Perhaps a solution is not having students adjudicate cases, but rather having their input in an advisory capacity.

While it would be more difficult to gain a student perspective without an actual presence at the panel, Dean Eramo did note that the student perspective “comes up within the investigation… because there’s a lot of student interviews generally in the case reports.” With this existing information and the possibility of bringing in students unrelated to specific cases to answer Board members’ questions and shed light on different social scenes at the University, it seems possible — if not difficult — to gain a student’s perspective without the potential risk of causing discomfort and biasing a panel. Student input is both necessary and important, but it should be confined to an advisory role, as opposed to an adjudicative one.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor. She can be reached at d.bernstein@cavalierdaily.com.

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