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The traditions we change

Sexual assault should not be a single sanction offense

The question comes up over and over again: why do we — at a University where Honor is the bastion of the institution — expel people for lying, cheating and stealing, but not for rape?

In the wake of Rolling Stone’s report of a brutal gang rape, many are calling on the University to make expulsion the only sanction for rape. The author uses the word “paradoxically,” to describe the situation: “And yet paradoxically, not a single student at UVA has ever been expelled for sexual assault.”

Perhaps it is a paradox. Perhaps the sanctions don’t scale. But to use the existence of the honor system and the use of expulsion as its only punishment — “the single sanction” — to advocate that a single sanction be delivered by the Sexual Misconduct Board assumes Honor must be the standard against which we measure everything at this University. And we need to question that assumption.

The single sanction is controversial. Honor recently hosted an event with Sustained Dialogue dedicated to discussing the single sanction, and we penned an editorial advocating honor change to a multiple sanction system. There is a strong argument to be made that the single sanction deters people from reporting, and may even create a problem of jury members’ unwillingness to convict.

To establish expulsion as the only punishment for sexual assault would create similar problems. Some survivors who file formal complaints want their attackers to be expelled, but in many cases, the personal circumstances are much more complicated. Dean Nicole Eramo, in an interview with WUVA, said she often encounters victims who insist they do not want to get their attackers in trouble. Perpetrators of sexual assault can be people you trust, even people you love. A single sanction system would be even less appealing for survivors who are not seeking this kind of justice.

The Sexual Misconduct Board must consider expulsion as a punishment for a student who is found responsible. Eramo has said that to her knowledge, expulsion has never been delivered as a sanction. And this is problematic for the survivors who want their attackers to get this punishment. But former co-chair of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition and recent graduate Emily Renda explained in her op-ed from last year that this is probably a result of the SMB having to weigh due process rights and Title IX mandates, a tricky legal balancing act.

“The disciplinary decision to expel, moreover, has to be approached with great caution, because given the ease of appeal on due process grounds and the low (albeit mandated) standard of proof, there is a high likelihood that an expelled rapist will appeal, win that appeal, and be right back on Grounds with no chance at retrial (thanks to double jeopardy),” Renda says.

Advocates and activists may have to look well outside the University in order to figure out a way to overcome this obstacle so that expulsion can be used more often for survivors who are seeking that punishment and in cases where it is warranted. But mandating expulsion as the only punishment at the University is not a logical solution. Such a system may make survivors even less likely to come forward.

A single sanction would also ignore the reality that there are varying forms and degrees of sexual violence. The proposed new University policy has added “intimate partner violence,” “domestic violence” and “stalking” as defined terms. Using the phrase “sexual misconduct” is not — as some have suggested — an effort to downplay sexual violence. The term is all-encompassing, covering stalking, harassment, intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which could refer to a range of unwanted sexual contact. None of these offenses is acceptable, but it would be short-sighted to assume they all warrant the same punishment.

One of the signs at the faculty protest Saturday night read “Women over tradition,” implying that our Greek system and standards of masculinity are rooted in a tradition which we must challenge. And that is true — we must. But there is another tradition we must challenge at the same time — the tradition of delivering a single punishment for varying degrees of offenses. Creating a system where survivors are encouraged to come forward necessitates maintaining multiple sanctions.