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‘Surprising win for civil liberties’ in Stanford’s sexual-assault report

More training and classes, but a higher threshold for expulsion

Stanford University could have the most fair process for dealing with sexual assault allegations among major universities – if its student and faculty governments approve the expansion of a pilot program slated for next school year.

While a task force report last week includes recommendations typical of its peers at other schools, it also proposes a higher bar for handing out severe penalties and discourages the so-called single-investigator model for handling allegations.

“On the whole, the new policies are a surprising win for civil liberties advocates,” Editor-in-Chief Jason Willick wrote in the Stanford Political Journal.

The Report of the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices calls for funding for courses on sexual violence, as well as more training for undergraduate and graduate students, but the university is tight-lipped on some details, such as what type of training students currently get.

The task force calls for “diverse programs” tailored to the “specific needs of graduate and post-doctoral students.”

Spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, in an email to The College Fix, declined to elaborate what these specific needs were, only saying that a pilot program will start in September.

Sexual Assault 101

Not wanting to leave professors out of the mix, the task force suggests providing more funding to develop “new classes about sexual violence” or “to increase the coverage of sexual violence” in current classes.

New students should also receive more education on sexual assault: “Continued education at New Student Orientation (NSO) and graduate student orientations” should be increased.

The task force also suggests a better-trained panel, ideally one of made of people who have “academic or professional expertise relevant to the cases that reviewing panels will consider.”

Panel members must also undergo training in relevant laws and policies, and must be staff members or faculty, ensuring undergraduate students will not be on the panel.

The staff member for the task force, Catherine Criswell of the provost’s office, deferred questions to Lapin.

Single-investigator model is too ‘idiosyncratic’

Advocates for due process in disciplinary proceedings showed cautious optimism about the report.

The university “is poised to take steps forward in order to ensure that students accused of sexual misconduct are granted a fair hearing,” wrote Susan Kruth of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The report recommends that the reviewing panel hearing a case “be unanimous as to responsibility and unanimous as to sanction” when the remedy is expulsion. Kruth praised that requirement for “ensuring that a student’s educational career does not hinge on one person’s tentative guess at what actually occurred in a given case.”

And “even more remarkably,” the report “explicitly rejects” the single-investigator model for considering allegations of misconduct, Kruth said.

That model, recently implemented at Penn State among others and at issue in a lawsuit against Cornell, invests authority in a “single decision maker with idiosyncratic judgments,” the report said.

“A system where several decision makers evaluate the crucial evidence and come to an informed judgment is one that relies on the benefits of deliberation among several people to reach a wise judgment,” protecting “both fairness as well as the perception of fairness.”

Beyond explicitly telling students they can have a lawyer present – possibly even a free one – the report is notable for shying away from the affirmative-consent standard, Willick wrote in the Journal.

The report relies on California’s penal code for its definition of “sexual assault,” which involves “force, violence, duress or menace,” while distinguishing it from “sexual misconduct,” which is simply sex without affirmative consent and which is not recommended for expulsion, Willick said.

Affirmative consent’s “absence from the task force’s official recommendations … is a welcome step forward,” he said.

Even ‘sex-positive feminists’ back the report

An editorial in The Stanford Daily also endorsed the changes to the hearing process.

Elizabeth Woodson, president of the student government, and Benjy Mercer-Golden, who handles sexual-assault issues on the executive cabinet, called themselves “sex-positive feminists” who hope the recommendations – including a more professional investigations process – will lead more students to use the system.

“We believe deeply that Stanford’s new adjudication process … protects the rights of accused, as it does all participating students,” partly because of its precise distinctions between assault and misconduct, Woodson and Mercer-Golden wrote.

The report also recommends expanding the mandatory training for all residential staff, but the university would not explain what that training entails.  Neither The Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response nor the Sexual Harassment Policy Office answered questions from The College Fix.

The Harassment Policy Office deferred questions to Lapin.

College Fix reporter Matt Lamb is a student at Loyola University-Chicago.

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