During the past year, there has been a great deal of national attention related to sexual misconduct and assault incidents on college campuses. President Shirley Ann Jackson convened a task force led by Curtis Powell, vice president for human resources, to review the Institute’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy. The interdisciplinary task force representing faculty, staff, and students has reviewed the existing policies in light of changing federal guidelines and appraised how the Institute handles cases related to student sexual misconduct.
“Rensselaer remains fully committed to fostering a safe and inclusive environment for our entire campus community,” said Powell. “Any individual who experiences or is affected by sexual misconduct, whether as a complainant (alleged victim), a respondent (alleged accused), or a third party, will have equal access to care and support through the Institute. We recognize that deciding how to respond to discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct can be difficult, and with conducting a thorough review of our existing policies, practices, and available resources, we have created an effective model for preventing, addressing, responding to, and adjudicating sexual harassment and misconduct.”
Important Changes to Existing Policies
The strengthening of the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy includes the revision of the definitions for: affirmative consent, intimate partner violence, non-consensual sexual contact, retaliation, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and stalking. Also, there is no longer a time limit for filing a complaint of sexual misconduct, and the expected time frame for resolving complaints is a standard of 60 days (for most cases).
In adjudicating cases of student sexual misconduct, the Student Judicial Process is managed through a Case Management Team, eliminating student involvement in the adjudication process. The Case Management Team is comprised of two Title IX coordinators, vice provosts and deans of undergraduate and graduate education, and the dean of students. The Case Management Team will oversee complaints of alleged student sexual harassment and misconduct, conduct assessments of investigatory findings, provide counseling support to the complainant and respondent, and make recommendations to the vice president for student life for any disciplinary action, if necessary.
The revised Student Sexual Misconduct Policy excludes the Student Good Samaritan Policy, which is designed to provide amnesty for a student who has engaged in alcohol and substance abuse and reports an incident where a fellow student is in distress. The use of alcohol and drugs, however, is not a defense for violating the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.
“Based on recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, it is imperative that all colleges and universities conduct a review and revise their student sexual harassment and sexual misconduct policies and complaint procedures. The collaboration, with the Division of Student Life, Public Safety, and the Office of the Provost, has produced an effective practice in addressing complaints of alleged student sexual harassment and misconduct,” said Powell.
Background on the Current Environment in Higher Education
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was the first comprehensive federal law to prohibit sex discrimination in education. It covers women and men, girls and boys, and faculty, staff, and students in any educational institution or program that receives federal funds. In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on the responsibilities of colleges and universities under Title IX that outlined the new standard whereby sexual violence, assault, and rape were components of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
Sexual assault, an extreme form of sexual harassment, “denies or limits, on the basis of sex, a student’s ability to participate in or receive benefits, services, or opportunities at the institution.” When it affects the survivor’s or other students’ educational opportunities, sexual assault creates what the legal system identifies as a hostile environment.
The U.S. Government and Department of Education have increased their focus and resources to aggressively combat rape and sexual assault on college and university campuses. In January 2014, the White House Council on Women and Girls issued a report indicating prevalence of rape is highest in college, and that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. Three months later, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Task Force released the “Not Alone” report to help empower and equip student and administrative bodies to better understand and more effectively tackle the issue. The report included action steps, recommendations, and best practices for: identifying the scope of the problem through campus climate surveys; preventing campus sexual assault; engaging men; helping schools respond effectively when a student is assaulted; and improving, and making more transparent, the federal government’s enforcement efforts.
In September 2014, the White House launched the Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Campaign to help prevent campus sexual assault. Federal investigations by the Department of Education regarding how colleges handle reports of sexual violence have jumped 50 percent in the last year. Ninety-four investigations have been initiated since 2011.
Sexual Misconduct Awareness: Education and Resources
“Our policies continue to state that sexual misconduct, which includes, but is not limited to, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, and stalking, are violations of federal and state law and Institute policy, and are not tolerated by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,” said Mark Smith, dean of students. “Our philosophy is to treat all students, staff, and faculty members with dignity, care, and respect. Anyone can report an incident and everyone will have access to care and support services regardless of where the incident occurred.”
An individual can report a concern to the Department of Public Safety, a Title IX coordinator, a portfolio Title IX liaison, the dean of students, the Student Health Center, or utilize the Anonymous Complaint Website. In addition to providing a mechanism for filing anonymous complaints, the new website provides easy reference to both on-campus and off-campus confidential care and support resources, lists contact information for important offices and 29 Title IX portfolio liaisons, covers confidentiality and privacy, and details the avenues for filing a complaint with Rensselaer administration and local law enforcement.
“This is an Institutewide effort and our faculty, staff, and students all have the responsibility for understanding and enforcing our policies related to sexual harassment and misconduct,” said Larry Hardy and Jackie Turner, Title IX coordinators for Rensselaer.
All individuals are encouraged to seek the support of and use all available resources on and off campus, regardless of when or where the incident occurred. There are both confidential and non-confidential care and support resources available. Confidential care and support resources are individuals, who by the nature of their work, are required by law to keep information shared with them confidential and who cannot share information revealed to them to another person without the express permission of the individual sharing the information. These campus and community professionals include medical providers, mental health providers, clergy, rape crisis counselors, and attorneys. These individuals are prohibited by law from breaking confidentiality unless there is an imminent threat of harm to self or others. However, when a report involves suspected abuse of a minor under the age of 18, some of these confidential resources may be required by state law to notify child protective services or local law enforcement.
Available on-campus resources include: Public Safety, the Student Health Center, Title IX coordinators, Dean of Students Office, vice provosts and deans for undergraduate and graduate education, Portfolio Title IX liaisons, and the Chapel + Cultural Center. Available off-campus resources include: St. Peter’s Health Partners’ Samaritan Hospital, Sexual Assault and Crime Victims Assistance Program for Rensselaer County, and local law enforcement.