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Officials Stand By Sexual Assault Policy in the Face of Government Changes

Lena Williams, Reporter

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Officials say they will not restructure the sexual assault and misconduct policy as a result of changes to an Obama-era sexual assault policy.

Late September, Education Secretary Betsy Devos released a new federal Title IX guidance, reversing the Obama-administration’s policy of colleges using a lower standard of proof when arbitrating cases of student sexual assault. Devos believes this interim guidance will give colleges more freedom to handle sexual assault issues and treat students fairly.

The Obama-administration compelled schools to use a preponderance of evidence standard, which entails that 51% of evidence must point to the crime. Instead,  Devos has implemented a clear and convincing evidence standard, which means that evidence must be more highly probable to be true than not.

Amy Lahart, Dean of Students and Title IX Deputy Coordinator, explained that Misericordia will not change the policy of preponderance of evidence to a clear and convincing standard of evidence.

“With Betsy Devos altering the previous Title IX guidelines, our sexual harassment and misconduct policy will not change. We have structured our policy to fit Misericordia’s mission and values and to ensure that all students are treated fairly and given adequate support from the University,” said Lahart.

Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new topic, and many federal laws and policies have been put in place. Furthermore, in recent years there has been a rise of social movements and groups raising awareness regarding sexual assault on college campuses.

In 1990, the Clery Act was adopted to require all colleges and universities to report crimes that occur on or near campus. The information is accessible in an Annual Security Report, which is posted on  schools’ websites. Institutions are required to report crimes such as murder, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary. Over the years, schools have been fined for Clery Act violations, such as the sex abuse scandals at Eastern Michigan State and Penn State and the Virginia Tech massacre.

In 2012, Pennsylvania State University came under serious fire when Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was charged and then convicted of multiple counts of child sexual abuse. The trial revealed that Sandusky’s victims were targeted through his charity organization, The Second Mile. In addition, multiple Penn State officials were investigated for their ethical and legal obligations in reporting any alleged abuse. In November 2016, the U.S. Department of Education fined Penn State $2.4 million for violating the Clery Act due to the University failing to notify the public about Jerry Sandusky and other dangerous incidents on campus.

Some suspect that Devos’ new federal Title IX guidance will deter sexual assault victims from coming forward.

Misericordia’s sexual harassment and misconduct policy prohibits any behavior that constitutes a form of sexual or gender-based harassment or discrimination, and sexual violence. Students found responsible for violating this policy may face disciplinary sanctions up to expulsion. 

If a sexual assault incident does occur the policy offers different avenues to take. Some students may not want to formally report the assault, but instead seek guidance and support in order  to continue his or her educational experience. Others may want to file a formal report of the incident, which may involve and investigation and ramifications against the accused person or persons. Lastly, the University can assist the complainant, at the complainant’s request, in contacting local law enforcement.

If a victim does formally report a sexual assault, the University will designate an investigation, which an employee or an external investigator will carry out.  The university’s formal resolution procedures states that the investigative team and the Title IX Coordinator or the Title IX Deputy Coordinator will determine their verdict based on a preponderance of evidence.

Lahart said she does not have a judgement about the federal changes, but she said she doesn’t know where policies will go in the future. Whatever policy or mandate that is in effect, Misericordia will not change its values, she said.

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Officials Stand By Sexual Assault Policy in the Face of Government Changes