Sexual Assault Panel Replaced by HR Officer

By Joe Flaherty

In a change to existing College policy on adjudicating sexual misconduct, the Sexual Misconduct Review Panel (SMRP) was eliminated in August. The SMRP, which had been in existence from the fall of 2011 until this summer, reviewed case materials that were prepared by an investigator. These case materials, which included information gathered through meetings with the complainant, respondent and witnesses, were reviewed by the four-person SMRP. Members of the SMRP were drawn from the Community Judicial Board.

In an all-campus email on Sept. 8, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz wrote, “While the students, faculty members, and staff members who served on the SMRP in the three years of its existence have done excellent work, we believe our institutional goals and the meeting of evolving standards of compliance will be best served by the new process, which places the adjudication responsibility in the hands of full-time professionals with extensive and ongoing training and experience in this area.”

Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College Shirley M. Collado described the new policy in an email to The Middlebury Campus

“The investigation and report preparation processes remain the same,” Collado wrote. “What has changed is the body that makes the official determination as to whether there has been a policy violation, and the body that assigns the sanction.”

Under the new policy, the College’s Human Relations Officer (HRO) takes the place of the SMRP in evaluating evidence and determining if the policy or policies under investigation were violated.  The HRO’s standard of evidence is preponderance of evidence – whether it is more likely than not that a policy violation occurred.  

Collado, who also serves as the College’s Title IX Officer, said that there were several reasons behind the change. According to her, under the previous policy, cases that occurred during the College’s various programs such as the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad, the Middlebury Summer Language schools, and MiddCORE were adjudicated by the HRO. In contrast, cases that occurred on the Vermont campus during the academic year or during the summer when neither party was enrolled in a Middlebury program were adjudicated by the SMRP. 

“It is important that students, faculty and staff are able to expect the same process regardless of what program they are participating in or when the event in question occurred,” wrote Collado. “Having all cases adjudicated by the HRO and all sanctions for students assigned by the Dean of Students supports consistency in process and outcome.”

The new policy is also designed to solve the logistical issue of convening the four-person SMRP during the summer, since the HRO is available year-round.  

The change takes place in the midst of a chorus of national attention on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Last spring, a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which oversees compliance with Title IX, discouraged colleges from including students on hearing panels involving sexual misconduct.  Following suit, the change to the policy now has the HRO as the only evaluator of evidence and the only individual responsible for determining if a policy has been violated.  

Other colleges and universities have made a similar change to eliminate students on a sexual misconduct hearing panel.  On Sept. 4, the Indiana Daily Student reported that Indiana University was removing students from hearing panels during an Office of Civil Rights investigation of the university’s Title IX compliance. Additionally, on Sept. 4, The Daily Princetonian reported that a Princeton University faculty committee is recommending similar changes to remove “the current adjudicatory role of a subcommittee from the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline.” Two weeks ago, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill announced a new sexual misconduct policy that removed students from adjudicatory hearing panels, according to an Aug. 29 article in The Herald-Sun.

Unlike Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Middlebury College is not among the list of institutions of higher education under investigation for a possible violation of Title IX for their handling of sexual misconduct cases.

Last September, the College was the recipient of a $272,528 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office on Violence Against Women. This grant was awarded to strengthen existing programs designed to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus. Collado said that the new policy is largely unrelated to the grant from the DOJ. “This particular decision was primarily based on our own analysis of Middlebury’s structure and the needs of our community,” Collado wrote.

The College’s process of hearing cases on sexual assault has evolved over the past four years. In 2011, the Sexual Assault Oversight Committee changed the policy on adjudicating cases involving sexual misconduct so that instead of the eight-person Community Judicial Board hearing these cases, a special investigator would be appointed who would then present the results to the SMRP. With the new change, the SMRP has been phased out and the HRO takes its place. 

Collado wrote, “We feel that the new approach is more consistent, allows us to resolve cases in as timely a fashion as possible, and is in keeping with best practices across higher education.”  

Michelle Peng ’15 is actively involved with the It Happens Here project, which aims to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus. She said the professionalism of having the HRO adjudicate cases is a plus to the policy change, but she hopes there can be several people weighing in on such a significant decision. 

“Having someone or a professional with extensive training has great benefits,” Peng said. “At the same time, it puts a lot of pressure on the HRO as a single person. It is always, in my mind, beneficial to have multiple people weighing in on such an important, life-changing decision.”

Rebecca Coates-Finke ’16.5 is a MiddSafe advocate and returning member of the confidential campus peer resource for those affected by sexual violence. She agreed that there are positives to having adjudication by the HRO in terms of cohesion and logistics. Coates-Finke also added that MiddSafe’s role has not changed despite the judicial process evolving. “In terms of MiddSafe’s perspective, it doesn’t really change our job that much or the support that we would be giving to someone going through the process.”   

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