Letter to the editor: CMU zero tolerance sexual assault petition

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Over the past few days, a petition for “Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault at Carnegie Mellon University” has been circulating through social media. People have shared it on Facebook pages, campaigned for it in line for the Hillary Clinton rally, and asked admitted students to sign it.

During my time at Carnegie Mellon, I’ve transformed Carnegie Mellon’s feminist organization, MORF, turning it from a group of three freshmen to what it is today, a club that raised thousands of dollars for reproductive rights at The Vagina Monologues and brought the campus together for sexual education at Love Female Orgasm. I have always been an advocate for survivors, but that is not why I’m writing today. I’m writing because I did some thinking, and I do not support this petition.

The writers of this petition are correct in that Carnegie Mellon has a huge sexual assault problem. Our numbers are significantly above the national average and that needs to be addressed via serious policy change. This petition proposes one solution that I’ve been told I should agree with, but I can’t endorse.

The petition as it currently stands requires mandatory expulsion for any student found responsible for sexual assault via the University Disciplinary Committee. Carnegie Mellon’s definition of sexual assault is consistent: “any physical sexual act perpetrated against a person’s will, where that person does not give clear and voluntary consent, or where that person is incapable of giving consent.” Any physical sexual act perpetrated against a person’s will includes grabbing someone’s butt at a party, or kissing them before asking. Sexual assault also includes situations where one or both parties are intoxicated.

Mandatory expulsion would be harsher than any other university policy. The closest comparison is Dartmouth College’s policy, which mandates expulsion only in specific cases such as repeat and violent offenses. The proposal, much broader than Dartmouth’s, would force the Disciplinary Committee to act as an expulsion committee, rather than one that decides a consequence appropriate for each individual case. This does not mean that the University should not expel rapists — in fact, it regularly does. But it also decides what to do in cases that are not so clear-cut. What if we had clearly delineated consequences so that survivors had a strong grasp of what was a likely outcome? Consequences like mandatory counseling, community service, suspension, and removal from campus housing could all be publicly known consequences that a survivor might select and recommend to a Disciplinary Committee.

Some might think the only reason survivors go to the University Disciplinary Committee is in dire situations. I find that argument odd. The Disciplinary Committee is an opportunity to arrive at a formal, rather than informal, decision over a violation of our sexual assault policy, and is often a reasonable way to address a dispute in a controlled setting. Students choose to go through the formal process for sexual assault for many reasons, and not all of them warrant mandatory expulsion.

The other two aspects of the petition — Transparency and Education — are initiatives that the Title IX Office has not only already agreed to, but has been working on for some time. They’ve made it clear that both of these points are part of their initiatives moving forward. More transparency about the actual consequence determination processes, both formal and informal, is necessary moving forward, but has not been addressed by the Title IX Office or this petition. I hope that the discussion surrounding this petition leads to a broader knowledge of the operations of the Title IX Office, rather than a dismissal of it as ineffective.

Carnegie Mellon has a sexual assault problem. But mandatory expulsion for anyone who commits sexual assault isn’t the solution. Hopefully, discussion of this petition will bring up other policies that we can take away from Dartmouth College’s more rigorous sexual assault prevention strategy, including an online reporting option, mandatory expulsion in serious cases, and clear delineation of consequences for specific violations. The people who wrote this petition clearly care about survivors of sexual assault. But in their empathy, they lose sight of the fact that not all situations are black and white. I encourage readers to consider whether this policy and this document are worth supporting.

We’ve been given a great opportunity by the writers of “Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault at Carnegie Mellon University.” In the wake of the Title IX investigations our University has faced, we now have the opportunity to use both our hearts and minds to make policy decisions about its future. Let’s make the right ones.