Flaws In The Conduct System: Mishandling Sexual Assault

by Shanna Williams

The Trail headlined an article this week titled “University addresses sexual assault.” The article mentions Green Dot bystander training, a vague overview of what happens when a sexual assault case is reported, and the various dialogues that were held earlier this semester. Unfortunately, the university has yet to address the many and major flaws of the conduct system. There is a serious lack of structure and clarity in the sexual assault and harassment cases handled at University of Puget Sound.

I was recently made aware of a specific sexual assault case that was in the process of investigation. This was the second sexual assault charge pressed against the accused. Last year, the perpetrator was found not guilty of sexual assault, and he received Conduct Level 1 punishment, which merely prevented him from assuming any leadership positions on campus. The conduct and hearing system had failed the complainant, and she no longer attends the university while her attacker does. This year, a second survivor came forward and reported another count against him. This person is a very close friend. She had been through conduct, and was starting the hearing process – which seemed pretty unclear and disorganized. Like any concerned friend and student at the school, I was appalled that there was not more being done. The perpetrator was still thriving in his fraternity, and maintained a work-study job on campus. This didn’t seem right to me at all, and my friend wasn’t thrilled with his Level 1 punishment either. After hearing about this case, I realized that I actually had no idea how the conduct process worked. So I asked my friend to tell me, step by step, how the university handles these types of cases. Yes, I had gone through freshman orientation and been to many sexual assault preventative events and workshops, but I didn’t know the administrative side of things.

This is what I learned: After a sexual assault is reported, based on the situation, the complainant meets with the head of conduct. The complainant writes a statement about what happened, and starts to build a case. Up to this point, the conduct process sounds organized and functional. Now, after conduct is the hearing. The hearing is moderated by a panel, not a judge. The panel consists of three people made up of staff and faculty. The complainant is given a choice to have a student on the panel as well. It is unclear on whether the panel is randomly chosen, or if they are specifically selected. This is what is completely twisted: the accused person can apply for “voluntary immediate withdrawal” any time between being accused to before the hearing starts. Voluntary immediate withdrawal is leaving the school permanently with no trace of the accusation anywhere on their record. In my friend’s circumstance, her rapist could have permanently left the university, transferred to another school, and continued assaulting women. This is a flaw in our conduct system that needs to be fixed.

And that’s not all I learned. Did you know that a student can request a no-contact order against another student? A no-contact order is a type of legal agreement that states that there will be no contact between two students – my friend compared this to a milder form of a restraining order. But this is not something that is taught in freshman orientation so many survivors are unaware that this is even an option. And speaking of freshman orientation, why are some of the sexual assault preventive workshops optional? If administration is so determined to create a safe and nonviolent environment (as reflected by the two emails they sent out this semester), why would preventive programs be optional and not mandatory?

Rape culture thrives on these flawed systems of misconduct. No university wants to deal with being on the cover of a magazine for their mistreatment of and lack of support for survivors (go check out New York Magazine’s issue from September 22: http://columbiaspectator.com/sites/default/files/Sept22-2014Columbia.jpg – Columbia University’s administration is freaking the fuck out), and that’s why mechanisms of escape like voluntary immediate withdrawal exist. Everything gets swept under the rug and no one is assigned blame – what could be wrong with that? Oh right. The survivor is left without any sense of closure or justice, which is seriously emotionally damaging. This failed conduct system delegitimizes rape as a serious problem, and sends the message to sexual assaulters that they can expect a slap on the wrist for destroying someone’s life.

I expect more from this school than rehearsed responses of “we’re doing all we can, I know this is a big problem on college campuses, I understand how frustrating this can be” and of course, the classic “here’s a name of someone you can talk to that can help.” My friend was afraid to be in her own house because she thought her rapist would try to break in while she was asleep. That isn’t okay. Fearing for your life on campus because the school administration isn’t doing enough about sexual assailants isn’t okay. Merely offering a few optional sexual violence prevention workshops isn’t enough. The scarce resources to survivors on campus aren’t enough. The conduct board is failing the students of this university, and I demand that they change the way sexual assault is treated on this campus.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Airiel Quintana says:

    Shanna, as an alumna of UPS, I am thankful you wrote this piece. It inspired me to get off my ass and remember that I owe my Alma Mater. We alumnae owe you current students a better institution. I’m sorry it is what it is. This is going to be a long, long comment, but I want you to promise me you’ll read it all. I want to help you make sure real changes happen at Puget Sound.

    Also, please know that all of the procedural information about sexual assault is available online in the university’s sexual assault and harassment procedures. They can be found here: http://www.pugetsound.edu/about/offices-services/human-resources/policies/campus-policies/campus-policy-prohibiting-hara/.

    Complainant procedure can be found in sections E and F of section IV.

    I hear your frustration in regards to the inaccessibility and seeming obscurity of this information, but I do not think that is the biggest problem. I invite you to read the full procedure carefully because in order to understand and analyze all of the flaws in the sexual assault conduct system, you need to see it laid out in all of it’s terrible glory. It sucks. Girl, it’s a goddamned mess.

    I want to try to help connect you to the procedure so that you may arm yourself to really challenge administrators to revise and alter current conduct processes.

    In the beginning of your article, you talk about “Level 1 Punishment.” You’re actually referring to the levels of sanctions students can receive in harassment/sexual misconduct proceedings, the full list, from the university procedure is below:
    “a. Student Sanctions
    Sanctions that may be imposed upon a student include but are not limited to:
    1. official reprimand, including a warning of the possible consequences of further violations;
    2. conduct probation, during which period of time the student may not participate in cocurricular activities;
    3. permanent eviction from university housing;
    4. conduct suspension, consisting of a temporary separation of the student from the university;
    5. any one or more other corrective sanctions as appropriate, such as an apology to persons harmed, or participation in an appropriately designed educational or other appropriate counseling program;
    6. permanent expulsion from the university.”

    You’re right to be outraged. Level 1 and Level 2 and even Level 3 are completely bullshit. In my mind, they should not even be considered in instances of sexual assault.

    You also say that it isn’t clear how the Board or panel is chosen, you’re correct, it isn’t clear. The policy itself is ambiguous. The sexual assault policy lists resource persons, but does not identify who will adjudicate these processes, in Appendix E, it does not explicitly identify who will comprise the sexual misconduct board. Below is the section that identifies resource persons for a victim, but the adjudicating individuals are missing.

    “C. Resource Persons

    Officers Who Receive Harassment Complaints
    The university officials currently designated by the President to receive harassment complaints are the Academic Vice President, Associate Academic Dean, the Dean of Students, the Chief Diversity Officer and Dean of Diversity and Inclusion/Title IX Compliance Officer/Affirmative Action Officer, the Assistant Dean of Students, the Associate Vice President for Human Resources/Career and Employment Services, the Director of Multicultural Student Services, and the Employment and People Development Director. See the Harassment Reporting Officers page for more information.
    Support Persons
    Sources of support for parties involved with a harassment and/or sexual misconduct process include the Dean of Students Office, Residence Life staff, Counseling, Health and Wellness Services, University Chaplain, faculty members, Academic Vice President’s Office, Human Resources, Chief Diversity Officer, and Faculty Ombudsperson. Puget Sound has a number of resources available to assist in developing appropriate educational programs and informational materials related to harassment issues. In addition to the aforementioned parties, other educational resources include members of diversity committees and response team, multicultural student services staff, and student diversity organizations. The contact information for the referenced resources and designated officials who receive harassment complaints are normally provided in The Logger and can be obtained from the Dean of Students Office, the Academic Vice President’s Office, Human Resources, the President’s Office, or Security Services. See the Harassment Reporting Officers Web page for more information.”

    Finally, I want to call your attention to Appendix C.

    Found here: http://www.pugetsound.edu/about/offices-services/human-resources/policies/campus-policies/campus-policy-prohibiting-hara/#appendixc

    Look at it. Rage over it. Realize how many time it admonishes “the survivor” to do something. The accused bears no burden here.

    I’m going to stop here, because I appreciate all that you have done in writing this article and I don’t want you to feel like I’m putting too much pressure on you or accusing you of a problematic article. This piece was great and it’s getting people talking, which matters so much. I just want this to turn into something real and substantial, because I also attempted to war against the powers that be when I was a student, but I didn’t know how best to go about it. I do now and this is my advice. Give them hell. Do not stop fighting for your friend, for every woman who has ever gone to PS and left mangled by the horrors of sexual assault. Know their language. Call them on specifics. Make them update this policy once a year. It hasn’t been touched since 2008. Write a letter, and put that brilliant mind of yours to work. Be prescriptive. Be brazen.

    Gloria Steinem once said, “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Look at the procedure, and find the flaws.

    I’ll mobilize some alumnae I know to start talking to the powers that be.

    More than that, I want you to know. I hear you. I hear you. I hear you.

  2. L says:

    As a Puget Sound alum, I find this article very interesting. While I think there are many valid points, I think that sexual assault goes beyond the college campus. Seeing that rape is a crime, why don’t students who have expletives sexual assult turn to the law beyond the puget sound campus to get help and not exclusively blame their school for their negative experiences while attending.

    1. Coby says:

      If I may presume to speak for Shanna, this isn’t “exclusively” blaming the school (or anyone else) for the lack of safety on campus. It calls out the institutional component of an issue which I think we’d all agree extends far beyond campus. That’s what I take the sentence “Rape culture thrives on these flawed systems of misconduct” to mean. The institution is not the core problem, but its structure does support rape culture by not taking it seriously. School administrators can address this institutional component with stronger, less ambiguous policies, and that’s the point. I hope this clears up some of your confusion about the article.

  3. Sara says:

    I completely agree that the institutional system is fucked, but there’s an important detail you need to be aware of in criticizing it: the university’s sole obligations in offering to investigate these types of crimes is liability and financial security. Under Title IX, failure to satisfactorily investigate a complaint of sexual misconduct leaves a university in major legal jeopardy and at risk of losing all federal funding. And as a result, they investigate sexual misconduct within their populations. I don’t mean to imply that they ought not pay attention to these crimes (or to suggest that the administration is indifferent), but fully responding to something as complex as sexual crimes in an expedient and legally functional manner is extremely difficult. The conduct and hearing processes that you criticize are absolutely worthless, but that’s because these types of procedures were designed for plagiarism and other academic offenses, not violent felonies. That’s why, for example, respondents are allowed to withdraw: as far as the university is concerned, once the source of the conflict is out of their population and not posing harm or stress to anyone therein, they’re safe. I think RAINN hit the nail on the head in their February open letter to the whitehouse in suggesting that the most effective way to combat this problem holistically is to work towards a greater incorporation of and ease of access to law enforcement- leaving the adjudication of something this serious up to random members of a University is absurd and inappropriate, but it is literally the best a university can offer under the law.

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