Behind the approach to victim services

Over the past several months, sexual violence has been brought to the forefront of several college and university agendas and has become the focus of new efforts in Washington, D.C. to prevent its occurrence and resolve its effects.

Specifically, two separate cases of alleged sexual assault reportedly involving student athletes at Marquette have demonstrated this issue is of major concern on campus and beyond. These cases have prompted meetings with the Milwaukee Police Department to ensure the Department of Public Safety is complying with related laws on reporting crimes.

One of the latest measures working its way out of the nation’s capital is an April 4 “Dear Colleague Letter” issued by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and its Office of Civil Rights. It offers a set of guidelines to help educators understand and prevent sexual assault on campuses and clarify legal obligations for schools receiving federal funds under Title IX.

It is a particularly crucial time for such guidance, especially as the U.S. Department of Justice reported between 20 and 25 percent of women in college will be victims of a completed or attempted rape before they graduate.

Arne Duncan, ED secretary and supporter of this measure, believes prevention through education is key.

“Information is the best way to combat sexual assault,” he said in the letter.

The decrees set forth by Title IX, which originated in the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. This definition includes sexual harassment and sexual violence such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery and sexual coercion.

Every school under Title IX must do three things: issue policies against sex discrimination, adopt and publicize grievance procedures and have a Title IX coordinator. These policies must be widely distributed to all students and employees and student or employee applicants, and should be available on an ongoing basis.

The Marquette Student Handbook clearly states the school’s stance against sexual discrimination and dedicates an entire section to its Grievance/Complaint Process, which must provide for “prompt and equitable resolution of complaints of sexual discrimination,” according to Title IX.

The Office of Civil Rights reviews all aspects of a school’s grievance procedures, including the following critical elements: where to file complaints; inclusion of adequate, reliable and impartial investigation of complaints; inclusion of designated and prompt time frames for stages of the complaint process; notice to parties of the outcome of the complaint, and an assurance the school will take steps to prevent recurring harassment and correct its discriminatory effects.

Title IX also details a school’s obligation to respond to a sexual violence incident. The guidance states that if a school knows or reasonably should know about an incident that creates a hostile environment, then it must take immediate action to eliminate it, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.

Marquette’s adherence

A detailed description of the process that victims of sexual assault should follow is outlined in the Sexual Contact/Assault Policy in the Student Handbook. It begins, “As a Catholic, Jesuit institution of higher learning, Marquette University expects that sexual union will be a mutually voluntary expression of love taking place within the context of marriage.”

The policy defines sexual assault as “a violent and aggressive act, not a sexual act,” adding that it is never the survivor’s fault and often involves alcohol use.

Wisconsin law divides sexual assault into four degrees, all listed in the student handbook. First-, second- and third-degree sexual assault are felonies and include sexual intercourse or sexual contact without consent through the use of threat, force, a weapon or with a person under the influence of an intoxicant, unconscious or otherwise unable to give consent. Fourth-degree sexual assault, a misdemeanor, is defined as sexual contact with a person without that person’s consent.

The student handbook instructs victims to go to a safe place where they are not alone and encourages them to consider reporting the incident. Reporting to specially trained DPS officers does not obligate victims to pursue action through the police or student conduct process, though DPS can assist in these areas. Information regarding the incident remains confidential until the victim chooses to pursue one of these options.

Sue Cooper, DPS crime prevention officer, said victims often come to her office simply to tell someone, get options and think over the situation.

“We are victim-driven,” she said. “We want victims to be comfortable in their decisions, and respecting that is the foundation of the program.”

Stephanie Quade, dean of students, directly deals with a number of these cases and also emphasized a victim-centered approach.

“Our hope is that throughout the process, the student is being counseled with the clearest sense of what all the options are,” she said.

If a victim wishes to pursue action through the university, the alleged assaulter must also be a student. In the case of a sexual assault, all alleged victims are referred to two conduct administrators from either the Office of Student Development or the Office of Residence Life, usually one male and one female, who determine charges and schedule a hearing.

From there, DPS performs its own investigation, which constitutes a large part of the evidence presented at the hearing. This is often a very time-consuming process, Quade said.

The victim is encouraged to obtain counseling and utilize an adviser and is required to make a formal statement before the hearing, describing the incident. The alleged suspect has the right to respond, and both parties are allowed to present evidence and witness testimony.

The conduct administrators take four factors into consideration when determining if the alleged suspect is responsible: severity of the violation, prior violations, precedent set by past decisions and community impact.

“It’s not a formula,” Quade said. “We establish a minimum threshold.”

She also said there is a spectrum for sexual assault ranging from forcible fondling to rape, and there is also a spectrum of consequences. The most typical response when guilt is determined is suspension or expulsion, she said.

Quade said the university administration will be performing another analysis of policies this summer to ensure compliance with the latest guidance from the Office of Civil Rights.

“Any opportunity we have to be more responsive to the needs of victims is something we are really in support of,” she said.

Holes in the system

Though Marquette’s policies appear to be in compliance with federal regulations, some on campus feel the system needs to be updated. Nancy Snow, a philosophy professor and co-chair of the Gender Resource Task Force, sees some holes in the system.

“The people now involved with the process are well-intentioned,” she said. “That said, there is a national epidemic on college campuses across the country.”

Snow would like to push for the formation of a full-time “quick-response” team involving a specially trained “victim advocate” who would provide one-on-one, non-intimidating guidance throughout the entire victim process.

She also thinks more needs to be done to help perpetrators deal responsibly with sexual relationships and alcohol use.

“If (perpetrators) are getting off the hook time and again, there is no learning,” she said.

Snow also would like to see a clearer alcohol amnesty policy, as she suspects many victims are hesitant to report incidents because they fear being charged with an alcohol infraction.

Another reason she cites for hesitant reporting is a tendency to blame the victim, something she believes subtly exists on campus.

She specifically cited the intertwining of Marquette’s Catholic identity with sexual conduct in the student handbook as a deterrent to reporting.

“This is an area deserving a more realistic, compassionate approach,” she said.

Plans for the future

Overall, Snow said the university needs to adopt a more student-centered approach, which she thinks can be achieved by means of a gender resource center at a central location on campus.

“We have the services, but they’re fragmented,” Snow said.

Cooper of DPS agrees with Snow’s stance.

“We have great pockets of service,” she said. “But it’s about bringing it together in a collaborative and comprehensive approach.”

Plans for such a center have been approved by Provost John Pauly, Snow said, with a $100,000 per year commitment. However, construction phases are still being worked out.

The center is expected to open next school year, Pauly has said.

Snow said candid, honest discussions about sex and relationships can occur in the drastic transition from high school to college, especially considering the varying degrees of knowledge among incoming students. These discussions can focus on education and research. She said we are currently one of the few Jesuit universities without a gender resource center, which would initiate such discussions.

Snow and many of her colleagues feel that our culture, especially at Marquette, presents a large problem in that it makes sex taboo, causing issues like sexual assault to take a backseat at times.

“We need to raise consciousness that sex is not wrong, but part of who we are,” she said.

The new guidelines that will be put into place and current actions being taken by schools give her hope, however.

“Now the ED is being productive, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “It’ll shake things up.”

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