Do Punishments for Sexual Assaults on College Campuses Hold Students Accountable, Improve Safety?

Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), June 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Do Punishments for Sexual Assaults on College Campuses Hold Students Accountable, Improve Safety?


On Oct. 2, 2010, the University of Maine in Orono learned of potential sexual misconduct by a student on campus.

Through the school's disciplinary process, the student was found responsible for violating the university's stalking and relationship abuse policy, harassment, substantial disruption of activities, violating the alcohol policy, possession of alcohol by a minor, causing imminent physical harm, engaging in conduct that endangers others and significant interference with the normal residential life of others.

We don't know what exactly the student did because the university enforces its conduct code in an administrative manner, not in a public court of law. The name of the offending student, which the university refers to as the "respondent," is confidential.

But we know the university handed down the following sanctions: probation, residence hall relocation, a meeting with a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, a meeting with a dean and what was recorded as "other sanction," which typically involves education-related discipline such as community service or writing a reflection paper.

In the last five years, there have been 62 reported cases involving sexual violence, harassment, stalking, hazing, intimidation or physical assault among students at the University of Maine. Of those cases, 47 students were found responsible for violations through the school's hearing process, according to university records. In several cases, victims dropped the complaint; in other cases, respondents were found "not responsible" but still faced sanctions, such as no-contact orders.

In that time, one student was expelled and eight were suspended. The majority of punishments for the range of policy violations included probation, required meetings with school officials, no- contact orders and the completion of community or education-related projects.

Did those sanctions improve students' safety? How should universities and colleges punish students who violate administrative policies but haven't always been convicted in court?

"I think most universities have their own [guidelines for sanctions], and it really is dependent on the culture of that institution," said David Fiacco, the director of UMaine's Office of Community Standards, Rights and Responsibilities. "Ours fall in line with what are the generally accepted practices," which are guided by the Association for Student Conduct Administration and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.

For S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation in Virginia, the question is whether disciplinary proceedings at colleges contribute to a culture that rejects sexual violence. The problem is that colleges and students have little solid information about what works.

"More research on how colleges and universities handle sexual violence is essential, with the conduct process being a very important part of that. There is a significant dearth of information available," Carter said. "I frequently get asked questions to which there is no answer because the data does not exist, because it has not been studied, because there have been barriers to gathering the information, because it has not been funded."Campus discipline

Universities and college campuses are bound by law to investigate cases of sexual violence and harassment and punish those found to have violated the school's policies. It's a separate process from the criminal justice system -- purposefully crafted to allow administrators to act quickly to protect students.

Universities have been investigating incidents and disciplining students for centuries. It's similar to how employers act when their employees commit minor infractions or full-fledged crimes. A company is unlikely to wait months or years for a conviction in court to fire an employee charged with embezzlement, for instance.

"As an institution of higher learning or an employer or any other agency, you would want to hold your employees or your students or your association members accountable to a certain standard of conduct," Fiacco said. …

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