Task force recommendations lead to sexual misconduct policy changes.
Davidson has revised its sexual misconduct policy after a year-long effort to gather feedback and respond to concerns from the entire campus community, and students in particular.
Findings by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault published last year focused attention on the subject of sexual violence on college campuses and led to public and media scrutiny of a number of sexual assault cases at colleges and universities.
In May of 2014 Davidson convened its own task force to reexamine the college’s sexual misconduct policy in response to concerns voiced by members of the college community.
Led by Sarah Phillips ’01, vice president and general counsel, the task force reviewed the college’s sexual misconduct policy and practices for responding to reports of sexual assault, and made recommendations for revisions to the policy. The revised policy was approved and put into practice in August 2015.
President Carol Quillen and Dean of Students Tom Shandley appointed students, faculty and staff to serve on the seven-person task force.
“The task force committed an entire year to study the policy and conduct research into what other colleges were doing,” said Kathy Bray ’85, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator. “They met with those of us who do the work at Davidson to examine how the process unfolds and to better understand the student experience.”
To foster an open process and engage the campus community in conversation about the policy the task force hosted three campus forums open to all students, faculty, and staff, and encouraged and reviewed suggestions from the campus community shared through the SMPTaskForce email address. Members of the task force also attended a variety of campus discussions about the sexual misconduct policy and held one-on-one meetings with students, faculty and staff.
Davidson’s definition of sexual misconduct encompasses a broad range of behavior, from harassing statements to non-consensual sexual penetration. Students or employees who have been the target of these behaviors have the option to make a report to campus police or local law enforcement, to initiate Davidson’s internal complaint procedure, to do both, or to do neither.
Students played a central role in discussions about potential policy changes through one-on-one meetings with Phillips, open campus forums and other communications with members of the task force.
Their feedback directly influenced a number of the major policy revisions that were ultimately adopted by the college. These included, but are not limited to, revisions to the definitions of prohibited acts, consent and incapacitation; changes to the composition of the Sexual Misconduct Board; and elimination of the requirement that the board find certain factors present in order to impose the sanction of suspension.
Because the definition of sexual misconduct covers a range of behaviors, and the particular circumstances of each case must be carefully considered, the board did not adopt mandatory sanctions for specific policy violations. In determining sanctions, including suspension, the board will attempt to fairly fit the sanction to the violation seen in total context.
The new policy also includes sanctions that are in line with best practices nationwide. Specifically, the list of sanctions has been updated to remove referrals, fines, community service and restitution, and to include instead mandatory educational programming, loss of status in housing lottery and restricted access to campus.
Increasingly, legal professionals are being called upon by colleges and universities to serve in advisory roles in Title IX hearings; most often to participate in the appeals process. The task force determined that Davidson’s appeals process could be improved by involving an independent appeal officer—the previous process routed appeals first to the college review board and then to the college president.
Kai Wagenheim McGintee ’03, a partner at the law firm Bernstein Shur in Portland, Maine, who focuses on higher education law, will serve the college in this role.
Institutions are turning to external professionals in their sexual misconduct resolution process because third parties have the requisite impartiality, training and capacity that may not be available internally, McGintee said, noting “I also see students responding positively to this change because they do not have to worry about crossing paths on campus with the decision maker in their case once it is over.”
As Davidson’s sexual misconduct appeal officer, McGintee will act as an independent decision maker when either (or both) party in a sexual misconduct case appeals the decision of the Sexual Misconduct Board. However, her role will not be to second guess the findings of the board or to re-hear the entire case, McGintee said.
Rather, if the decision of the board is appealed, McGintee will determine whether the investigation and resolution of the complaint was carried out in a manner consistent with Davidson’s procedures, and that the sanction imposed is not substantially disproportionate to the findings of the board.
“Having an independent appeal officer as the final check on the college’s procedures and sanctions in sexual misconduct cases enhances trust in the process,” McGintee said. “If students trust in the process, they are more likely to report an incident of sexual violence and believe that the College will treat them fairly if they are accused of sexual misconduct.”
As an outside reviewer who is also an alumna of Davidson College, McGintee feels she is uniquely positioned to make decisions that affect the Davidson community.
“I have an appreciation and understanding of the school’s culture and values,” she said. “As an alumna, I am also invested in ensuring that all Davidson students are provided equitable processes and a safe, supportive learning environment.”
Spreading the Word
Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy was first drafted in 1991 and is periodically reviewed and revised.
“In each of the reviews we study our policy in the context of federal mandates, general best practices, feedback we’ve received from students who have been through the process, and from faculty and staff who have served in some capacity in the process,” Bray said.
Once changes to the policy are recommended, the student conduct council votes on it twice—with a two-week period between the votes to allow time for reflection and feedback. After the policy is approved by the student conduct council, it goes to the college president for approval.
Every effort is then made by the residence life and the dean of students offices to communicate about the policy to incoming and current students, faculty and staff.
“In addition to sharing information about the policy at orientation, every time we make a revision the policy goes out to the whole student body in an email,” Phillips said.
The full sexual misconduct policy and resources for students, faculty and staff are available online.
The college also reports campus crime statistics annually per the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which requires all colleges and universities who receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus and their efforts to improve campus safety as well as inform the public of crime in or around campus.
Education and Prevention
Despite the national attention focused on Title IX, it is important to recognize that sexual violence is not just happening on college campuses, McGintee said. In fact, studies show that non-college students between the ages of 18-24 are at greater risk than college students of experiencing sexual violence.
“If we simply rely on colleges and universities to address the issue, we are only scratching the surface of the problem. It is a complex issue and there is no one solution, but I believe one that must be concurrently addressed through our criminal justice system and early education and prevention efforts,” McGintee said.
For its part, Davidson has augmented education and prevention efforts with a new program aimed at educating and empowering the bystander—that is, the person who might become aware of, but not directly involved in, a potentially dangerous situation. Launched in October 2014, the Bringing in the Bystander program aims to heighten awareness, challenge social norms, decrease misperceptions about sexual assault, and provide skills that increase individuals’ confidence to intervene effectively in potentially risky situations.
While the college has always worked diligently to provide a safe environment for its students and has a strict no-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct, it implemented the bystander education program as a way to emphasize community responsibility in fostering a safe, caring, campus environment.
Research shows that bystander intervention is one of the most effective tools students can use to prevent sexual misconduct, Bray said. That intervention includes working to maintain a campus culture that does not tolerate derogatory, violent or inappropriate actions, language or comments.
The Bringing in the Bystander training complements information shared during new student orientation, during which first-year students watch a series of vignettes performed by upperclassmen that emphasize the importance of fostering a “community of respect.” The skits cover topics such as substance abuse, sexual misconduct and the experience of coming out in college, among others. Throughout the fall semester, additional programming is provided during Davidson 101 and in the residence halls.
Students who participate in bystander training learn new information, while also reviewing and reinforcing some of the information they receive during orientation as it relates to sexual misconduct and community responsibility.
“The program is designed for students to learn what potentially risky situations look like, how to recognize when sexual misconduct is about to happen, and to equip students to intervene in a safe way,” Bray explained.
The program is not mandatory, but approximately 500 students participated in the 90-minute training last year. The college continues to offer open sessions for all students, and tailored sessions are provided to student groups and organizations, and athletic teams, upon request.
“As a community predicated on mutual trust and respect, we can and should expect the very best of our students, including their willingness to confront behavior that they know to be wrong,” Bray said. “The training around intervention helps to support these efforts.”