Revised sexual assault policy hopes to create a more supportive culture

COURTESY OF MENGLI SHI

COURTESY OF MENGLI SHI

By ABBY BIESMAN and MELANIE LEVINE

After months of focus groups, forums and committee meetings, the University released today the new sexual misconduct policy that will govern all nine Johns Hopkins schools.

“What we really heard from our community — especially our students — is that they wanted a culture change. The policy is one part of that change,” said Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin G. Shollenberger.

The revised policy clarifies the different types of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault, sexual harassment, relationship violence and stalking) and describes in clearer language the process of reporting a complaint. The policies and procedures were not rewritten from scratch, but rather, sections were updated with more comprehensive information.

University administrators hope that the more reader-friendly policy will help people understand the process better and be more aware of the resources available.

The overarching goals in the revision were to create a document that is clear and accessible, that informs students, faculty, staff, residents and fellows of their resources and courses of action, while treating all those involved in the process with respect.

“We wanted to develop a policy that was compassionate and fair,” Paul Pineau, the University’s interim general counsel said. “The principle of fairness undergirded our entire process throughout this, and we heard from students and all members of our community that it was important to build a policy that treated people compassionately and fairly along the way.”

During the discussions of the past year, there had been a feeling of dissatisfaction among the student body with the way victims of sexual assault were treated by the Hopkins administration and the way sexual assault cases were handled. Many felt that victims weren’t encouraged to come forward and report assaults or that they weren’t supported throughout the process.

“A lot of the feedback that we got from students was that yes, they wanted a clearer and more centralized policy, but also one that created an environment of care, so they feel that for all students involved in the process, the process would dignify them and treat them fairly,” Shollenberger said.

Key updates to the policy are: 1) an emphasis on available resources, 2) a new amnesty policy for students who report sexual misconduct and 3) improvements to clarity and readability. It can be found at sexualassault.jhu.edu/policies-laws.

Resources for victims

While the judicial process remains fair and impartial for the victim and the accused, administrators attempted to place a greater focus on the resources available to a person who has experienced a sexual assault.

“My hope is that this really does help convey everything that is available to an individual who is victimized and helps them want to access the various levels of support and resources,” Title IX Coordinator Allison Boyle said.

The list of resources has been expanded to include all the student affairs offices across the University as well as government offices, and the section on seeking medical attention and preserving forensic evidence has been expanded to better explain the process. The section further adds that “Victims will receive full and prompt cooperation from University personnel in obtaining appropriate medical attention,” which includes transportation to Mercy Medical Center or another hospital and can be done anonymously.

The judicial process (investigation, hearing, sanction, appeals) can often be unfamiliar and stressful, and the revised policy brings attention to a resource called a “supporter.” Supporters are available to both complainant and respondent and assist the person throughout the process, accompanying them at meetings or hearings and providing support. They could be a parent, legal counsel, University personnel or anyone else.

The position existed previously (called an “advisor”), but it’s description was relegated to a bullet point in the list of procedural rights. Now, the role of supporters is highlighted in its own subsection and is described in greater detail. Additionally, the revised policy states that both parties have access to a neutral figure who can answer any questions about the process.

The section on disciplinary procedures, which are otherwise largely unchanged, expands on the possible outcomes of a hearing and what they mean for the student and community.

It specifically describes ways that the resolution panel, which conducts the hearing and rules on punishment, can act to improve the safety of the victim or the campus community, beyond issuing sanctions.

To prevent further sexual misconduct on campus, the panel can recommend to the Title IX Coordinator measures like increased security at certain locations, increased supervision of certain activities, and additional training for students or groups.

The panel can also recommend measures to protect the victim and help them handle the repercussions of the incident, like providing counseling or tutoring services, providing an escort around campus, or arranging extra time for classwork.

“I view the policy as being more victim-oriented in certain respects and contributing to the kind of culture that everyone in our administration and our students and our community wants to see, which is one that is supportive and safe,” Boyle said.

Amnesty

Shollenberger explained that one of the concerns in creating this policy was ensuring students felt comfortable reporting issues. Because of this concern, an amnesty provision has been added.

The provision assures that someone who reports an incident of sexual misconduct will not be subject to disciplinary action if they were violating University alcohol and drug policies at the time.

This standard holds true so long that violation of the conduct occurred around the time of the incident, no one else was at risk, and the report was being made in good faith. An exception is when a mandatory intervention for substance abuse is required by law.

“One of our number one concerns is that we wanted students to call us if they needed help,” Shollenberger said.

Boyle emphasized the mission to create a supportive system for sexual assault victims and a campus environment where students would feel safe and comfortable.

“We don’t want students to be concerned about underage drinking if they’re victimized or if they are a bystander who is helping out a friend who’s been victimized,” she said.

An amnesty provision was one requested by students.

Readability and clarity

Previously, the University had a policy on sexual harassment; a policy on sexual violence, sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking; and a separate document for procedures relating to the complaints brought against those crimes. The revised policy comprises all these and while doing so, improves the formatting of the 31-page document to be more readable.

“Visually, it is certainly one that is easier to navigate in terms of the structure,” Boyle said. “That was something that was really important for us.”

The policy also includes language tweaks and more detailed explanations, with the goal of making it more accessible.

Many of the procedures surrounding reporting, investigating and resolving a complaint are described in greater detail and contain more examples. Definitions for terms like “sexual assault,” “dating violence” and “consent” are defined as previously or are expanded upon, but definitions have been added for legal terms such as “complainant,” “respondent” and “preponderance of evidence.”

The increased detail in the procedures for hearings, sanctions and appeals is made possible by a new consolidation of the process across the University. Previously, many of the specifics varied from school to school, but the new policy is all-encompassing and cases are no longer tried by the individual schools but by a centralized adjudication process.

The University most recently revised its sexual violence policy in the fall of 2014 in response to guidance from the Department of Education and new laws. The time since then has been spent further revising the policy, with the assistance of the Sexual Violence Advisory Committee and community input. In June, the Provost’s office released a draft of the revision, asking for further suggestions from the community.

Administrators agree that input from the student body and rest of the community has been crucial. Shollenberger referenced student actions over the past year about sexual assault culture on campus.

In the last year, students formed a petition describing concerns about the sexual assault policy, the student government hosted a forum on sexual assault, and students called for change in sexual assault policy at the Rally to End Rape Culture at Hopkins.

“Students have been very vocal about the need for a more robust policy,” Shollenberger said. “We took their feedback into consideration.”

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