Sexual assault policy changes

Gina Casalegno, Dean of Student Affairs, presented a draft of Carnegie Mellon’s revised sexual harassment and assault policy at a Town Hall meeting last Tuesday. She reviewed the history of these policies and explained some of the more significant changes to the policy, including the new evidentiary standard for sexual assault and changes in the rules for confidentiality.

As Casalegno explained at the beginning of the Town Hall, there are currently two separate policies for sexual assault and sexual harassment. The sexual harassment policy was created in 1981, and the sexual assault policy was created in 1991; neither policy has undergone any revisions since their creation, save for an addendum to the sexual assault policy in 2011.

Since the sexual harassment policy is so old, Casalegno explained, it is not geared as much toward contemporary concerns: “[It] is constructed very much to think about the workplace environment, and while one could think about applying it in other contexts, like in the classroom ... it doesn’t really resonate with today’s rhetoric about how we think about sexual harassment.”

An impetus to revise the policies came in April 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) to universities regarding the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments. Although most people associate Title IX with providing equal access to athletics for university women, it more broadly advocates gender equity in education through increased access to math and science fields for women; protecting the rights of pregnant and parenting students; and preventing and addressing sexual harassment.

The DCL focused specifically on sexual harassment: It clarified that sexual violence — including sexual assault and sexual coercion — are forms of sexual harassment covered under Title IX, and it outlined the obligations of universities to respond to sexual violence.

“The statistics on sexual violence are both deeply troubling and a call to action for the nation,” the letter says, citing a report prepared for the National Institute of Justice that said about 1 in 5 women and about 6 percent of men are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault while in college.

Carnegie Mellon added short-term fixes to its sexual assault and sexual harassment policies in spring 2012, with a note saying, “the University recognizes that it must adjust certain substantive and procedural provisions in its current policy statements to comply with particular mandates,” and promised to fully update its policies in the 2012–2013 school year. Carnegie Mellon thus created a committee last semester to draft new policies. Student Body President Will Weiner, a fifth-year senior economics and statistics and decision science double major, explained, “I am the undergraduate representative [on the committee] — there’s also a graduate student who sits on there, and then there’s a bunch of other university–official types ... Dr. Michael Murphy, Dean Casalegno, faculty council, staff council, that type of people, so a mix ... across the board.”

One of the biggest changes mandated in the DCL was that universities are obligated to investigate all reports of sexual harassment and must take action if they decide that community welfare is at risk. As a result, the university can no longer promise complete confidentiality for people who filed such reports.
“This is an area that has caused a lot of concern, I’ll be quite frank,” Casalegno said. “Our message has largely, for many, many years been to support at all costs what the victim or survivor’s wishes are. So that is to say if someone comes forward and tells their story about a way that they were fundamentally violated and how power was taken away from that individual, our teachings in the field of sexual assault prevention and education and response has always been to defer to the wishes of the victim or survivor in terms of what they want done.”

“We’ve been really anxious about how this would play out since our implementation last year,” Casalegno continued, “and I will say anecdotally ... that I am really proud how thoughtfully and how compassionately we have handled that review of every case that comes forward.”

Jeannine Heynes, Carnegie Mellon’s coordinator of gender programs, agreed in an interview that the obligatory action has so far been effective. “If there was something where the survivor said, ‘I don’t want to go forward with it, I don’t want to get this person in trouble’ — they say that a lot, ‘I don’t want to ruin this person’s life’ — but we’ve seen the name pop up before ... then [Casalegno and Title IX Coordinator G. Richard Tucker] usually say to me, ‘try to get in front of the survivor, go through the SAA, and say it’s really important that we proceed with this,’ ” she said. “So, I mean, they’re all complicated emotionally, but sort of administratively, the survivors who haven’t initially wanted to go forward have been really cooperative, and I think once you sit down and say, ‘we’re all here for you, here are the resources, we’re on your side’ ... I think they feel much more calm and willing and they understand the process to go forward.”

While obligatory action may be one of the more significant changes to the new policy, there are numerous other changes, including two policies being combined into one.

This reflects “a shift in our policy to acknowledge that sexual harassment is no longer limited to employment relationships, and that sexual assault is no longer something to be considered in the student domain,” Casalegno said.

Also, the evident standard for disciplinary action is now a “preponderance of evidence,” so that it only needs to be deemed more likely than not that an incident of sexual assault or harassment occurred.
Title IX Coordinator G. Richard Tucker, who is a professor of applied linguistics, now reviews all complaints or reports filed by the campus community and looks at systemic ways in which Carnegie Mellon’s administration could improve its adherence to Title IX. There are four newly appointed deputy Title IX coordinators who will support him as necessary in specific cases. “My responsibility is to make sure that I am regularly in touch with each of [the staff members involved], that I’m available to them, that I’m there to review recommendations they’re making or review the reports they’re receiving, and to decide on the appropriate course of action,” Tucker explained in an interview.

After Casalegno finished presenting the changes, there was a Q & A session involving the approximately two dozen attendees.

One student asked whether the lack of confidentiality in reporting would apply to Counseling and Psychiatric Services or Health Services, and Casalegno clarified that both of those services would still be confidential.

There was also a discussion about the difficulties in preventing and reporting assault involving intoxication, as well as the necessity of educating students about diminished capacity and a lack of consent during sex.
Casalegno will present the proposed policy to Student Senate, Faculty Senate, Graduate Student Assembly, and Staff Council at their respective meetings throughout the month.