University re-evaluates sexual assault policy

The university is using the start of the semester to boost its efforts to address the issue of sexual assault on campus.

Many of the initiatives named in a March 25 email from Vice Provost for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry to students will be in full effect this fall. In addition, new provisions devised by administrators over the summer months will also be announced via an email from Provost Elizabeth Garrett shortly before classes begin.

“We’ve spent some time [this summer] attending national conferences, paying attention to legislation coming through our state legislators, as well as our White House Task Force report that also identifies best practices nationally,” Carry said. “We have been comparing what we provide with what’s going on nationally to identify best practices.”

The administration’s work this summer is just the latest part of the school’s long battle to combat both sexual assault on campus and allegations of the mishandling of sexual assault reports.

The complaint that started it all

In  May  2013, several students filed a group Title IX complaint, accusing the university of mishandling their reports of sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education then deemed that three of those cases warranted further investigation and subsequently opened a probe.

With the complaint came a barrage of media attention on USC, as well as other colleges and universities that received similar complaints around the same time.

Scrutiny increased in October, when administrators admitted that they had underreported the number of sexual assaults to federal officials in their Clery Report, a report that documents three years of crime statistics for the university. Carry attributes the oversight to a mix up in accounting when combining the list of reports from the Dept. of Public Safety with the list from the Center for Women and Men, two places where students can report sexual assault. Moving forward, however, Carry said a process has been put in place to ensure this does not happen again.

“Now our process is in place to have ongoing reconciliation [of the lists],” Carry said. “In the Deptartment of Public Safety there’s a single officer assigned to this task of making sure that our records are up to date at all times.”

According to Carry, at the beginning of the spring semester, federal investigators came to campus to interview students and staff and further examine USC’s process for handling reports of sexual assault. USC is one of 55 colleges and universities nationwide under investigation. It takes anywhere from six to nine months for results of the investigation, in the form of recommendations for the school, to be announced, according to Carry.

Once the recommendations are issued, by the Office of Civil Rights, the university will work with the office to determine which should be instituted at USC and which might not work as well.

“The federal government also looks at public universities, community colleges, technical colleges, so they may deliver a recommendation that doesn’t make complete sense in our context,” Carry said. Other recommendations, though, he said would be “no brainers.”

Improving the system

Administrators have not been sitting idle as they wait for these recommendations to be passed down, however. The March memo to all students announced initiatives that had been developed by administrators, student leaders, the Dept. of Public Safety, the Title IX coordinator and the Center for Women and Men. One provision particularly influenced by students was the clarification of the reporting process Student leaders met with administrators of a six-month period, according to Carry, to help identify what parts of the process and the code of conduct were unclear.

“We had to focus on how to make this more apparent, how do we make this more clear so there’s no confusion about it, because I think the responsibility of clarity is to the writer,” Carry said.

Other changes were more quickly instituted. In September 2013, administrators hired a specially trained Title IX investigator to take over all interviews and investigations from Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards, who had previously been handling sexual assault cases on top of cases of theft, conflict, plagiarism and more.

“This investigator only deals with sexual assault … so they get to identify patterns and themes and get to focus on learning from every interview process,” Carry said.

To further assist students who wish to report that they believe they’ve been sexually assaulted, the Center for Women and Men, one of the two places students can file reports and also a space for them to receive confidential counseling, will be moving to a space in the Engemann Student Health Center twice as large as their current one in October.

“Being in the health center is going to be really amazing because now we’re also part of a bigger clinical team,” said Ekta Kumar, director of the center. “There’s more researchers, there’s more clinicians to collaborate with.”

A new location is not the only recent change for the Center for Women and Men. Kumar is now hiring a larger staff. With its newly enhanced resources, Kumar is hoping the center can do more to assist these students.

“I think this year’s going to be really exciting,” Kumar said. “There’s a lot of transition happening, but our focus is to just really collaborate on the university-wide initiative and student-led initiatives.”

This includes working with the Title IX office on training for all first-year students in bystander education and interpersonal violence during Welcome Week, as well as further training three weeks later to check in on students and reinforce the message.

Within the center itself, Kumar has ambitious plans to revive programs that have fallen out of practice in recent years, including group therapy sessions and a men’s care program, in which a group of men come together to have dialogue on masculinity and relationships and put on events on campus.

“I think a lot of times people think of [sexual assault] as a women’s issue when in actuality it’s not, it’s a broader issue,” Kumar said. “We are trying to revamp that by getting more men involved in our office, too.”

In addition, the administration hopes that more students will now go to the Center for Women and Men or DPS for help because of the new medical amnesty policy, implemented in the spring, which ensures that those who seek help will not be punished for having consumed alcohol. First passed by the Undergraduate Student Government, the policy was also adopted by the administration and added to the growing list of responses to a poor history of sexual assault.

“That’s the best example of how the partnership works,” USG Vice President Rini Sampath said of the collaboration. “It’s all about passing these resolutions, getting into meetings where we get to talk to administrators and address these issues.”

Students take charge

Students have taken the lead on many projects to further sexual assault prevention. The Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils have formed an eight-person student-led task force to address issues of sexual assault.

“As a chapter president, I was noticing an alarming rate of girls coming forward and saying, ‘I heard something happened’ or ‘something happened to me,’” said Kaitlyn Hittelman, co-chair of the task force and president of Delta Delta Delta. “As the president, that’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Hittelman partnered with other chapter presidents, Greek senators and members of the two Greek life councils to address the issue. The task force has three goals: to educate the Greek community on what consent means, on bystander intervention and to create a culture change.

“Our biggest goals are a little intangible. … But I think we just want to bring it to the forefront of everyone’s minds and really make it clear to everyone — because I think it’s clear to the leadership — that this isn’t a men’s issue and this isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a rape issue,” Hittelman said.

This phrase seems to be the motto of the group as they attack this problem. Hittelman’s co-chair, Zeta Beta Tau president Micah Solit expressed the same sentiment and added one more distinction: the issue is also not Greek versus non-Greek.

“I really want to eliminate the perception that this only happens in fraternity houses because the reality is that’s not true.  Everybody knows that deep down,” Solit said.

Though the task force is instituting their program in the Greek system, the program could soon be expanded to other parts of the student body. USG Greek Senator Providence Ilsevich, a member of the task force, plans to introduce a bill to the USG Senate sometime this semester that would expand student-initiated sexual assault programming to other organizations.

“The concept behind [expanding the program] is that we would really like to see that this is something that our whole university can hold itself accountable for,” Ilsevich said. “You know, we say this is not a Greek issue, it’s not any individual group issue, it’s a nationwide issue and it’s a university-wide issue.”

Because the current task force is specifically tailored toward the Greek community, Ilsevich is working on formulating a program that could work for all organizations on campus and account for the fact that many students are in multiple organizations.

“There’s a lot of different restrictions that can possibly prevent this from working, and that’s something we’re really trying to plan around,” Ilsevich said. “We don’t want this to turn into something that’s unrealistic for every group and then it never happens at all.”

USG is also working on a social media campaign to open up dialogues about this sometimes taboo issue. Sampath believes that the campaign will work nicely with a resolution if it’s passed to address the issue.

“It’s kind of like the carrot and the stick model in that the carrot is that all your friends, your buddies, everyone you care about and your moral compass is telling you not to do this,” Sampath said. “But also, say, giving students consequences if we were to pass a resolution.”

With all these new programs in place, many will expect to see progress at USC. Both Carry and the student leaders, however, emphasized that positive results might not be what people expect.

“I am hoping that more students, men and women, feel empowered to report cases of sexual assault,” Carry said. “Our numbers may increase, and I will see that as a good result because I think part of the concern with regard to sexual assault on college campuses … has been the shame wrapped around reporting these crimes.”