In their attempt to make sexual assault victims more comfortable pursuing disciplinary cases against their attackers, members of the Board on Judicial Affairs debated how to protect the interests of both parties, and the role of the University in ensuring the best practices for handling sensitive cases.
When the Board on Judicial Affairs developed this year a new disciplinary process for students accused of “sexual misconduct,” disagreement arose over whether or not to make the new plan—which does not allow those students to request an open panel hearing—mandatory.
Three board members said no, arguing that such a departure from the current disciplinary process should get ASSU and Faculty Senate approval before the University president considers it.
But nine other board members voted on April 6, after discussion for the better part of a year, to send the plan straight to President John Hennessy, who signed the mandatory pilot program into existence last week. It will remain in effect until December 2011, when the board is set to reconsider it.
The new plan is expected to be swifter, more private and more closely aligned with the “best practices” of other universities dealing with student misconduct—or at least the board hopes. Perhaps now, more reported sexual assault victims will feel at ease in the system than in recent years.
But with the new process, a one-year pilot, coming after 13 years of what some called a “broken” system, board members are waiting to see: will it work?
New Ground Rules
The former process allowed accused students to request an open hearing; it also called for a panel of six people to hear cases of relationship abuse, stalking or sexual assault and harassment, which the pilot program covers. And it allowed the alleged victim and offender to cross-examine each other directly.
Those features discouraged victims from pursuing cases against offending students in Judicial Affairs, according to board members, panelists and members of Stanford’s Sexual Assault Advisory Board. In 2006 and 2007, they note, 24 “sexual offenses” were reported to campus police; eight cases were counted by Judicial Affairs around the same time, during academic years 2005-06 and 2006-07.
And the number of cases Judicial Affairs heard—where a student might be found responsible for a Fundamental Standard violation and face consequences from the University—is fewer than the number reported to the office, according to Judicial Advisor Jamie Pontius-Hogan, who would not disclose exact figures.
Now, say board co-chair Nate Chambers, a graduate student in computer science, and Judicial Affairs staff, Stanford’s disciplinary process more closely mirrors the “best practices” of other schools when it comes to accusations of sexual violence among students.
Four people—three students and one faculty or staff member—make up a panel in the new process, lending greater privacy to the case, board members said. Open hearings are not allowed, and alleged victims and offenders submit questions to a Judicial Affairs investigator, who then chooses which questions to ask each party.
Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Chris Griffith also said panelists will be trained for “greater privacy and sensitivity.”
Board co-chair Lynn Hildemann, a professor in civil and environment engineering, said she had participated in a sample training, which involved “expert speakers and discussions and exercises all aimed at giving the panelists a greater understanding of what the perspective is of the involved parties and especially what unusual behaviors you might see the student filing the complaint show.”
The larger pool of Judicial Affairs student panelists—some 75 appointed by the Nominations Commission every year—may opt in to the additional training, which would make them eligible to hear sexual assault cases.
The new process may also be swifter: it generally requires the Judicial Affairs investigator to compile a case file within 30 days of a complaint before a panel reviews it. Previously, sexual assault cases would join the backlog of other cases, ranging from cheating to drunk driving. The average delay last year, according to Judicial Advisor Morris Graves, was 19 weeks.
The panels’ meetings may also be more bearable, Graves said.
“Let me just briefly describe for you [the] worst-case scenario under the old process: a hearing that takes 13 hours,” Graves said. “And at the end of a 10 hour period, the panel has determined that the student is responsible, and now they’re moving in to determine what the appropriate sanction should be.”
Panels are expected to do their work over a period of several meetings now.
Mandatory or Not?
Sitting next to his faculty counterpart Hildemann and Judicial Affairs staff, Chambers chose his words slowly as he explained the push to mandate the new process.
“If this wasn’t mandatory, it was argued that the responding student—the one accused—would basically always choose to do the current process because it’s in their favor,” Chambers said.
Brandon Jackson ’12, one of three students who voted against the plan, which is known as the Alternate Review Process, disagreed.
“This process always seeks to provide privacy both for the responding student and the impacted party, which is, in my opinion, more of a reason they would actually choose this new process,” Jackson said. “The bottom line is they should have this choice and not be forced into it.”
That the mandatory process does not include an option for the accused student to request an open hearing was a reason, Jackson said, for the board to send the proposal through the regular channels of a Student Judicial Charter change—the ASSU legislative bodies, the Faculty Senate and only then the University president.
But the board chose in a 9-3 vote to exercise another section of the charter that gives the University president authority to enforce student conduct rules. ASSU President David Gobaud, a coterminal student in computer science, and Graduate Student Council co-chair Eric Osborne, a law student, were shown a late draft of the plan for input, according to Chambers.
If the board chooses to make the pilot program a permanent one in December 2011, it would undergo the regular charter change process, staff said.
Changing the Guard
By that time, new students will sit on the Board of Judicial Affairs. The Nominations Commission recently announced its incoming roster; those seven nominees, after ASSU legislative confirmation, will select next year’s judicial board members.
Last spring, the commission’s first nominations were resisted by the Office of Judicial Affairs, who said more women needed to be nominated to the board. Plans for the sexual assault overhaul were in motion at the time.
After weeks of legislative discussion, a new set of students—three women and three men—were nominated and confirmed.