Univ. to investigate off-campus sexual assaults
Univ. to investigate off-campus sexual assaults

With the University Senate’s approval, school officials are hoping an expanded Code of Student Conduct will allow them to better aid sexual assault survivors at this university, and awareness groups remain cautiously optimistic.

At their last meeting of the year May 2, the senate voted to remove the code’s geographic boundaries so officials could address code violations both on and off the campus.

It was touted in debate as a means to find justice for assault victims, who previously found themselves without an administrative ally if their assault occurred off the campus.

“They would come to us, and we would say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have jurisdiction; you’re going to have to call the police,’” Office of Student Conduct Director Andrea Goodwin said. “With the changes to the code, that won’t have to happen any longer.”

The expansion allows the university to better assist its students, said Stephanie Rivero, Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Program peer educator assistant coordinator.

“Our campus is growing year after year, and the amount of space we have on campus is limited,” Rivero said.

There’s an emerging pattern in the cases SARPP counselors handle, Rivero said — incidents are happening more frequently off the campus.

“A lot of sexual assault unfortunately happens at parties and things like that, which most occur off campus,” said Jill Santos, a sophomore psychology major and president of UMD Feminists for Sexual Health. Any step taken to combat sexual assault, she added, is a positive one.

But the policy expansion may not be a big enough step in the fight against the pervasive crime.

“It takes a lot of courage to speak out, and if they’re going to put that option out there, they need to understand it’s important to stick to that and follow through with claims they get,” Santos said.

Goodwin said she knows her office will be facing more cases when the conduct code expands in the fall, though she doesn’t know by exactly how much. She put in a request for additional help — a full-time coordinator and a graduate assistant — to work on the issues students bring to them.

A college culture of heavy  drinking makes sexual assault that much harder to combat. Only some victims report their experiences, and an estimated 100,000 18- to 24-year-olds reported having been too drunk to know if they consented to sex at some point, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Alcohol plays a role in at least 50 percent of reported sexual assaults at colleges, according to the College Drinking Prevention campaign, which drew data from numerous studies published in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. Some estimates placed that number as high as 97 percent of sexual assaults.

The data also suggest assaults involving alcohol are more likely to fit the legal definition of rape  and would be prosecutable if students reported them.

Between 2006 and 2012, two students reported a rape or attempted rape to University Police, and during that same time, the Office of Student Conduct received 29 reports, though only nine of those resulted in disciplinary action. Between 2007 and 2012, 17 incidents were reported to the Department of Resident Life’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities, said Keira Martone, resident student conduct manager.

But while the code expansion could help, some students and officials expressed concerns about the vague language and the lack of oversight for the Office of Student Conduct, which some worry may not yield justice for students  in the long term.

Even Goodwin has some reservations about the policy’s final language. The final version is different from the one she submitted in October, having gone through many edits to fit senate and legal standards.

“I was hoping the language would be more specific,” Goodwin said. “If I see a lot of things that are coming in that are concerning, and they don’t really fit in to the new language, then we may have to revisit it.”

And there could be reason for concern — in the past five years, many universities have made headlines for easily manipulated campus judicial processes.

A sexual assault victim committed suicide after Notre Dame allegedly protected the football player who she said assaulted her; UNC Chapel Hill faced criticism for failing to report cases of sexual assault.

At this university, senate officials crafted the expanded policy based on the language used at schools in the University System of Maryland and the Big Ten, said Jason Speck, senate student conduct committee chairman.

That group of schools included  the University of Iowa, where university President Wallace Loh served as provost. Prior to Loh’s arrival at Iowa in 2008, that university was the subject of national media attention after a female student accused the school of covering up her report of sexual assault.  

Officials allegedly told her not to press charges against the two athletes she said sexually assaulted her in 2007.

“The policies were so out of date at that institution,”  Loh said, adding that proper training is the key to avoiding these situations.

Officials at this university insist that kind of incident wouldn’t happen here. The athletic department has strict policies and it shares conduct records with Goodwin’s office.

“People in the community are willing to report students no matter their status,” she said. “We would never look the other way if a student was an athlete.”

As for sexual assault committed by any student, Goodwin said there shouldn’t be any confusion, regardless of the language, about the seriousness of the crime.

“That’s one of the most serious things that a student could do to another student,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things that will easily be understood with this policy.”

At SARPP and at Feminists for Sexual Health, they’re hoping to see even greater change. A senate bill mandating sexual assault education for incoming freshmen at orientation was tabled earlier this year, and another senate bill revising the conduct code’s evidentiary standards for sexual harassment and assault in compliance with new Department of Education requirements is making its way through committee reviews.

“Our society and culture has a long way to go before everyone who has been impacted by violence is ready to go ahead and tell somebody,” Rivero said.