Columbia University’s new “gender-based misconduct policy” and associated procedures for responding to campus sexual-assault allegations have garnered criticism from a coalition of victim advocacy groups.
The groups claim they were not consulted during the revision process despite their efforts for at least a year pushing the university to alter how it responds to sexual assault.
The revised policy stands out for allowing both accuser and accused to retain advisers such as lawyers, and for seeking to get people with “relevant legal training” – such as judges – to serve on hearing panels.
The Huffington Post reported that “a small collection of students” met with the university president’s special adviser in early August and was “informed a new policy would be unveiled” that same week. “Students were not given copies of the policy and not provided an opportunity to give feedback.”
Groups “submitted pages of policy proposals … made pleas for reform on national television and the front pages of newspapers,” said No Red Tape Columbia, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, Columbia Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault, Title IX Team and Take Back The Night of Barnard College in a statement published in the Columbia Spectator.
“We have repeatedly requested meetings with top administrators,” yet all such efforts “have been rejected or ignored,” they said.
The changes to the policy are “largely an effort to ensure their baseline compliance with the recently enacted” Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act and Department of Education regulations, the group said, but “does not reflect students’ needs, and changes made are not adequate to ensure student safety.”
Most of the changes to the policy modify the previous adjudication and sanctioning processes for sexual assault cases.
One of the most notable changes is the removal of students from hearing panels, which were previously comprised of one student and two university officials.
Under the new rules, panels “will generally have three members drawn from a small group of specially-trained University student affairs administrators,” and “in certain matters, the University may include retired judges, lawyers or other individuals with relevant experience and special training.”
Another new stipulation allows for both the victim and alleged assailant to choose an adviser, which can even be an attorney, to “support the student and provide advice about the investigation and disciplinary process.”
The renamed Gender-Based Misconduct Office gets several new positions under the revision: three case managers “who will serve as a neutral point person for both complainants and respondents throughout the adjudication process”; six new staff positions in the Office of Sexual Violence Response; and two more Title IX investigators, for four total, according to the Spectator.
One thing that remains unchanged is the “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof that hearing panels use to determine violations. This means an alleged assailant can be found responsible if the hearing panel is “convinced based on the information it considers that the respondent was more likely than not to have engaged in the conduct at issue.”
The coalition’s letter in the Spectator, among other things, faults the lack of “clear or useful sanctioning guidelines” in the new procedures, failure to “sufficiently improve the training for staff members who interact with survivors,” and the decision to leave appeals “in the hands of Deans with no expertise, inadequate training, and a clear bias.”
Various student groups have been pushing Columbia to revise how the university deals with sexual assault allegations at least since October, when the Columbia Democrats circulated a petition calling for the release of anonymous, aggregated campus sexual assault statistics.
Initially, officials from the university refused to disclose the statistics, but ultimately reversed its decision in January under pressure from students and the advocacy groups.
The Student Action Committee of Columbia University issued a statement in January requesting the university “clarify and initiate any needed reforms to the adjudication process within the Office of Gender-Based Misconduct,” and the university agreed to a town hall on March 14 with the advocacy groups, students, faculty and administrators.
Further, in April, a group of 23 Columbia and Barnard students jointly filed a federal complaint against the university for violating Title IX, Title II and the Clery Act.
Despite these allegations, Columbia is not one of the 72 universities and colleges currently being investigated by the Department of Education, according to statistics released to The College Fix.
The new policy notes that student groups “may provide additional input throughout the coming academic year.”
The Columbia policy follows a bevy of recent federal legislation addressing sexual-assault investigations on campus, most prominently the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act , as The College Fix has reported.
Critics of the legislation, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argue that the bill does not protect due process rights of alleged sexual assaulters or provide them with equal resources as victims of alleged sexual violence.
College Fix contributor Julianne Stanford is a student at the University of Arizona.
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