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October 12, 2012

Investigative Series, Part I: Where are we now? Sexual assault at the U of C

This is the first installment of a quarter-long series on sexual assault, the second of which was published on November 2. It can be found here.

At least one in five college-age women and one in ten men are victims of sexual assault, according to published estimates. After a flurry of campus action and awareness from 2007 to 2010, demands to update the U of C sexual assault policy have all but disappeared from campus consciousness. Sexual assault, according to an abbreviated version of the University’s official definition, is a non-gender-specific act of sexual penetration or sexual conduct in which a victim does not or cannot give consent. In this quarter-long series, the Maroon will be investigating response, awareness, and prevention with the aim of providing a fuller picture of sexual assault on campus.

In 2010 the University of Chicago student body voted on a referendum to reform the University’s sexual assault division of the Area Disciplinary policy, a culmination of a more than two-year long advocacy for three major changes to the existing sexual assault disciplinary procedures. The Working Group for Sexual Assault Policy (WGSAP), a primary student force behind this referendum, argued first that the existing composition of hearing boards, which drew faculty from the division of the accused, posed issues of potential bias.

Second, procedures to that point had allowed exclusively for the accused to read the accuser’s opening statement, and the same right was not offered to the accuser.

Third, motivated by the experiences of past victims, the group also called for sensitivity training for those involved in disciplinary proceedings.

In April 2010, the referendum was put to the student body, and passed with a vote of 78 percent in favor of the suggested changes. In response to the proposed referendum, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum appointed a small committee composed of faculty, staff, an undergraduate, and a graduate student.

Though the committee did not publicize a timeline for implementing changes, mandated sensitivity training was introduced by summer of 2010, and an altered disciplinary policy set composition of sexual assault hearing boards to include faculty outside of the accused’s academic department. Responding to these changes in a 2011 Maroon article, Michelle Boyd (A.B. ’12), a member of WGSAP, described the updates as “a success story.”

But according to the University’s official sexual assault and disciplinary policies as of 2012, significant aspects of the movement’s demands remain fundamentally unresolved. Although sexual assault disciplinary hearing boards now include a faculty member and student representative unaffiliated with the division of either the accuser or accused, they still include, at minimum, two members of the accused’s academic division.

Sensitivity training for those involved with hearings was implemented, overseen by Associate Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs Belinda Vazquez. But those who are often the first to hear of sexual assaults, such as RHs and Advisers, receive less comprehensive training than those in the hearings or the 56 hours of instruction that has always been mandated for Sexual Assault Deans on Call.

For these first points of contact, a uniform, mandated response in which victims are informed of their options does not always occur, according to victims of assault. This disconnect between informal confidants and the formal response apparatus has left some victims ill-informed of their response options and their cases undocumented. Due to this possible lack of proper documentation and reporting of assaults, the dialogue of sexual assault occurrence on this campus is skewed.

Given the scope of this issue, University disciplinary policy is not the full picture. Prevention efforts in the form of sexual assault awareness and consent education take place most visibly during Orientation Week. Additional education is available, but not mandated, from organizations like University-run Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) which brings information sessions to dorm houses and other campus groups upon request.

Two years after the student-led referendum, the spotlight on sexual assault has dimmed. Federal law and guidelines, the relationship between inebriation and consent and their respective definitions, and the University’s duty to both accuser and accused further complicate how best to tackle sexual assault prevention and response. But the tangled and multi-faceted nature of the issue only accentuates the need for wider campus understanding and dialogue.

Early this past Sunday morning, a woman reported a sexual assault by an acquaintance in a university residential area. The image of sexual assault as limited to a stranger in a dark alley provides a skewed depiction of a crime that takes place in our dorms, in our apartments, and in our fraternities. This series intends to re-launch a constructive and informed dialogue about prevention, response, and student awareness of sexual assault on this campus.

The Maroon is committed to achieving as thorough knowledge as possible of all aspects of this issue. If you have information on the history of U of C’s policies with regard to sexual assault, or if you or someone you know has experiences relating to sexual assault and/or subsequent hearings, please contact us. hannah.nyhart@gmail.com or joycrane7@gmail.com.

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