Over the last few years, colleges and universities have achieved a strong consensus about our sexual assault prevention agenda: define the scope of the issue through research, prevent its occurrence by educating the community, respond quickly and effectively when it does occur, and increase transparency and consistency of enforcement. These tasks certainly are our baseline, but Title IX charges us with a much broader goal: to provide safe learning environments for all students and to give complainants the help they need to reclaim their educations.
The adjudication process for sexual misconduct cases on college campuses generally follows a very linear and legalistic course, which serves important goals. It provides complainants and respondents with clarity regarding the steps in the process and eases the burden on administrators by limiting discretionary decisions. This kind of process creates and substantiates transparency and consistency.
However, this process has become very outcome driven. As administrators, we focus on end results: whether or not there was a violation and, if a violation is found, how the respondent is sanctioned. One thing that is not articulated in procedural guidelines, however, is how the process itself can empower students and provide self-advocacy tools for their lives beyond the institution. Moreover, the process itself can empower the community by focusing on prevention, outreach and multi-faceted approaches for battling what has also become a public health issue.
There is significant evidence that empowerment (or reclamation of power) in the legal system increases the well-being of victims of intimate partner violence (Bennett Cattaneo, Goodman p. 482). Cattaneo and Goodman define this phenomenon as “therapeutic jurisprudence” — where the court system has “far-reaching impact on those who become involved with it, whether he or she is a victim, offender, or witness — one that goes far beyond traditional notions of deterrence and behavior change.” Their research indicates that a victim’s experience in the system itself can be as important as the outcome.
Using this research, we can focus the college conduct system not only on the outcome of an individual sexual misconduct case, but on how the investigative and adjudicative procedures impact our students holistically, providing students with self-efficacy tools. In brief, the students’ experiences with the conduct system are also an outcome. In an effective adjudication process, students must feel that they have been heard, and that they were not ignored or dismissed. As an added benefit, this approach can fall neatly within our compliance obligations, establishing empowerment and a therapeutic process as a key part of an effective response when a student is sexually assaulted.
We, as educators, can use a traditional investigative and adjudicative model to empower students:
- Complainants are provided with a list of resources and options for reporting, including confidential resources. The initial contact is not investigative, but supportive. Let them know their wishes matter.
- Respondents are provided with a similar set of resources that they may choose to access.
- Witnesses, including those facing secondary trauma, are provided with resources they may access.
- Complainants choose how and if they are involved in an investigation. They have the freedom to change their minds throughout the process. They choose their level of involvement. The University facilitates this by continuing to provide resources and updates and ensuring that complainants understand their rights throughout the process.
- Respondents have options about how to participate in investigation meetings and administrative hearings. They are able to give their perspective, provide witness names and receive supportive resources. While respondents may feel that the investigation is not really something they chose, I have seen some respondents decide not to participate and others who attend the investigation meetings and provide input. I tell respondents all the time that the conduct process is not merely a rubber stamp and that all parties have the power to impact it.
- Complainants and respondents may testify at any hearing, author written statements, call witnesses and bring a support person. We ensure that the student voice is heard in a manner that both parties find equitable, accessible and, perhaps, healing.
- Both parties are notified of milestones in the process, projected completion dates and outcomes along the way, so they are aware of the proceedings and on-going processes. They are empowered to contact investigators for updates and to set the schedule for them.
Managing communication and timelines ensures that students don’t feel ignored or disempowered by a mysterious process. More information and ability to access that information is a valuable tool in ensuring students feel cared for.
As you can see, there is equity in this process. Equity in itself is empowering. It is important to explain and demonstrate to students that this approach is not one-sided or focused on a specific gender. A fair and neutral process better ensures the integrity of the outcome. And, our shared responsibility as a community is to show students that their role in this process is as important an outcome as compliance itself.
Our guest writer for this blog post is Adam Jussel, Director of Student Conduct and Assistant Dean of Students at Washington State University. Adam holds a law degree from Seattle University served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington, representing Washington State University before becoming the Director.