Author: Lucy Feickert
The Title IX Office is currently collecting feedback on a sexual assault policy slated to replace the interim policy that has been in effect since 2013. The proposed policy draft changes the college’s procedure for processing sexual assault claims, expands some definitions of terms and includes a provision to ensure academic freedom.
The policy draft is divided into two documents: One, the official Sexual Misconduct Policy, defines and explains prohibited conduct, and the other outlines the student grievance process, according to Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones.
Jones highlighted the most significant changes in the policy draft at a sparsely attended information session meeting Oct. 27 and another session the day before. These changes involve the procedure for processing sexual assault complaints; the draft removes hearings and shifts to an investigation model. The change was inspired by feedback that Jones received from those who had been through the hearing process and believed it to be a tremendous burden.
The college has and will continue to contract with independent investigators to collect information about any complaint filed, Jones said. The investigators contact all involved parties involved in a complaint — such as the complainant, respondent and any witnesses — and gather other information like text messages or keycard access use.
Under the proposed policy, the investigators will compile a report that will then be given to a review panel to determine if the policy was violated, according to Jones. In the hearing model, the investigators’ report would then guide a hearing in which the complainant, respondent and witnesses would be asked questions by an adjudicator and go through the information again.
According to Jones, the White House task force on sexual assault recommends the proposed investigation model rather than the previous hearing model. Jones does not think the investigation model will significantly decrease the amount of time it takes for complaints to be processed.
Jones hopes to have nine people serve on the review panel outlined in the policy draft, including faculty and other administrators, and wants members to commit to multiple years so the panel is not comprised entirely of new members each year. According to Jones, each case would be assigned to three members of the review panel, not all nine of them.
The appeals process for complaints would remain the same as in the current policy — both complainant and respondent have the right to appeal the panel’s decision within five days.
While Jones said this procedural change is the most significant in the policy draft, further changes also clarify or expand the language.
For example, the policy draft outlines a standard of review for the process of interim suspension , or temporary suspension from campus when a case is under review.
“[Interim suspension is implemented when] the reported conduct poses a substantial and immediate threat of harm to the safety or well-being of an individual, members of the campus community or the performance of normal College functions,” the policy draft reads.
According to Jones, the changes will ensure that the implementation of an interim suspension is not done in a frivolous way.
The policy draft also includes a process for an initial meeting between a respondent to a complaint of misconduct and a representative from the Title IX Office. According to Jones, this change puts into policy a protocol the Title IX Office adopted last year. Jones said this change comes from working with parents of respondents who complained about a perceived lack of rights in the policy for respondents.
Students have been, and will continue to be, informed about a complaint filed against them by letter, Jones said. The policy draft states that after respondents are notified, someone from the Title IX Office will meet with them to go over their rights, how the process works and the resources that are available to them. The policy draft also outlines what information will be provided to respondents.
Definitions of stalking are included in the policy draft, as well as a new characterization of sexual assault.
The interim policy defined sexual assault only as non-consensual intercourse. The policy draft now includes non-consensual sexual contact in addition to non-consensual intercourse. Jones said this new definition reflects how the community talks about these issues but does not change the actual definitions of the terms.
The definition of stalking is extended to include an objective standard of reasonable behavior and adds that a result of stalking behavior would be substantial emotional distress.
Because of concerns raised by community members, according to Jones, the policy draft includes protection of academic freedom, reaffirming the college’s commitment to free speech.
“This protection extends to the civil expression of ideas, however controversial, in the classroom, residential life, and other campus-related activities,” the policy draft reads.
Jones pointed out, and the policy draft affirms, that harassment — the creation of a hostile environment — of any kind will not be excused or permitted under the guise of free or academic speech claims, and individuals will not be able to escape liability by claiming they are participating in protected academic speech.
The policy draft will permanently replace the college’s current interim policy, but it is subject to future changes as state and Federal laws evolve, according to Jones. The interim policy currently in place was instituted in 2013 following controversy surrounding the college’s handling of sexual assault complaints. The interim policy is compliant with law, but the proposed draft clarifies and improves on that policy, Jones said.
Politics Professor Caroline Heldman, who filed a Title IX complaint in April 2013 with the Office of Civil Rights on behalf of students over the college’s handling of sexual assault, said the 40-page policy draft has unclear language.
Prior to the policy replaced in 2013 by the interim policy, Occidental had a one-page, gold-standard policy, according to Heldman, who said that policy clearly outlined the college’s zero tolerance stance and the necessity of active verbal consent. Since then, according to Heldman, the policy has become longer and increasingly unclear.
Jones and the Title IX Office are currently soliciting feedback on the policy draft. An online form on the Title IX Office website allows community members to submit anonymous feedback until Nov. 15. Students were also able to submit feedback at last week’s information sessions and they also can email Jones directly with any comments.
Jones said she hopes to present the policy draft to President Jonathan Veitch in December.
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