Zero tolerance means zero adaptability, zero reporting, zero progress towards prevention

Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor

The phrase “zero tolerance for sexual assault” has been heard around campus a lot recently, including on these very pages last Monday. A petition directed at University President Subra Suresh titled “Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault at Carnegie Mellon University” has gained over 970 signatures in the past two weeks. The petition has made one thing clear: the student body and the administration are not on the same page about sexual assault prevention and punishment. The petition’s demands have clearly struck a nerve on our campus despite representing a significant departure from the university administration’s current way of dealing with sexual assault. The administration and student body need to have a candid discussion about Carnegie Mellon’s sexual assault policy. While it is high time that we clearly defined policies about sexual assault, as a campus community we should be cognizant of the dangers of one-size-fits-all policies.

The petition calls for three key policy reforms. The main policy point is that “any student found responsible for sexual assault by CMU’s University Disciplinary Committee will face immediate expulsion.” The petition also asks the administration to publish “the number of sexual assault cases which reach a resolution through the University Disciplinary Committee, the number of students found responsible for sexual assault through the University Disciplinary Committee, the number of students expelled for sexual assault through the University Disciplinary Committee,” each year, and finally that these changes be made clear to the student body “through an all student e-mail, as well as an addition to CMU’s The Word, both online and in print,” and incorporated into orientation week lectures.

In order to understand the effect of the changes that are being asked for and the way they would alter our campus culture around sexual assault we have to first understand the status quo. Currently, the Office of Title IX Initiatives (TIX) has an individual-centric view of sexual assault policy.

According to their website, the office’s response to sexual assault “is largely driven by the wishes and preferences of the person affected by the sexual misconduct”(emphasis in original). When a case of sexual assault is reported, the office’s first step is to provide support resources and implement safety measures for the survivor. These safety measures most often take the form of a no contact agreement between the reporter and the accused assailant.

Next, TIX gives the reporting party the option to initiate a university investigation into the accusations. If the reporting party decides to go through with the process, the case is investigated by the University Police and TIX, and then given over to the University Disciplinary Committee. This committee is made up of two student board members, one staff/administrator board member, one faculty board member, and one additional faculty or staff/administrator board member, and is moderated by the Associate Dean of Student Affairs. These members are charged with holding a hearing to review the evidence and determining if an assault took place and what punishments should be applied to the perpetrator.

The university uses a more relaxed standard of preponderance of evidence, meaning that there is over a 50 percent chance an assault occurred, to determine guilt instead of the more rigorous criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Once the committee has made a decision about the assault charge they deliver their recommendation to the Dean of Student Affairs, who makes the final decision about guilt and any potential punishment.

Currently, there are no regulations controlling how people are punished for committing sexual assault. Generic possible punishments, referred to as sanctions, for any violation of community standards are listed in Carnegie Mellon’s Community Standards, Policies, and Procedures, and include community service, fines, disciplinary probation, suspension, and expulsion. There is no list of sanctions specific to sexual assault, leaving the committee and the Dean of Student Affairs a lot of leeway in how they discipline assailants.

The administration’s definition of sexual assault also has surprising amounts of ambiguity. The university has officially defined sexual assault in two places in the University Policy Against Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. Troublingly, these two definitions seem to conflict. Section I lists specific acts that are considered sexual assault, including rape and dating violence, implying a more narrow definition. Meanwhile, the Appendix E definition says sexual assault is “engaging in any physical sexual act perpetrated against a person’s will, where that person does not give clear, voluntary consent, or where that person is incapable of giving consent due to drug or alcohol use, or due to intellectual disability.” TIX clarified that the vague Appendix E definition is the correct one, and confirmed in an email that “actions such as non-consensual fondling, touching, groping, or kissing are ‘physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will’ and therefore fall under [the] definition of assault.”

This is where the “Zero Tolerance for Sexual Assault at Carnegie Mellon University” petition runs into its first logistical difficulty. The writers of the petition noticed these discrepancies and specified that their demand for automatic expulsion is based on the broader Appendix E definition. This leaves no room for proportional punishment based on the crime, and treats someone who kisses someone without asking first the same as a rapist.

There is more at stake in this petition than a quibble over definitions. The petition demands a shift away from the individual-centric policies of TIX and towards a community-centric plan. Right now the system has the flexibility to accommodate survivors’ wishes. As a community it would be more comfortable to remove perpetrators of sexual assault from our environment, but that comfort comes at a price. A frequent concern with zero tolerance policies is that they have a chilling effect on reporting. A Carnegie Mellon Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Study done in the spring of 2015 found that less than 5 percent of assaults are reported to the administration for review, and that “between 20 and 41 percent of students didn’t report because they believed they might be partially at fault or might be mistaken that they were assaulted.” The idea of opening an investigation that could get someone expelled when you are not even sure what happened is extremely intimidating, and sets up another road block to increasing our abysmally low reporting statistics. Some survivors simply want the official confirmation that what happened was assault while others want their attackers expelled, or some other solution on the spectrum in between. People whose final goal is not their assailant’s expulsion end up not being able to report at all.

There is an argument to be made that campus safety is at risk if we do not remove rapists from the community. One survey found
that 63 percent of college men who admit to committing rape say they did it repeatedly, an average of 5.8 times, so a person who rapes someone once is likely to pose a threat to others. The looming threat of expulsion could also be a deterrent to would-be rapists. What this discussion comes down to is a question about the purpose of university investigations into charges of sexual assault. Should our system exist to facilitate survivors’ recovery, or should it be a tool for justice and a way to shape our community? Instituting a zero tolerance policy would steer us towards the latter.

If our campus decides to do the former and focus on individual survivors, there are still a lot of reform options we should consider. Actually, the second and third demands in the petition, which asks for transparency about sexual assault accusation outcomes and for specific steps to be taken to educate the student body about new sexual assault policies, offer a good place to start.

Transparency about investigation proceedings and the disciplinary decision making process is vital. The administration’s process has failed students in the past, resulting in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and sometimes still continues to fail them. It’s not that the decision makers are bad people or intentionally causing harm. It’s just a simple question of incentives. Investigations into incidents of sexual assault create bad PR for the administration, and expelling people found guilty of sexual assault exposes the school to lawsuits. The only way to break the cycle is to change the incentives by giving the student body the power to hold the administration accountable.

In order to hold the administration accountable, the student body needs two things: defined standards that the administration can be held to, and information on how those standards are applied. TIX should lay out clear descriptions of what sanctions can be used to punish transgressions of different severity so that survivors have a level of assurance about what the administration has to do for them. There should be several possible sanctions for each crime so that the situation can be tailored to the specific survivor within the general framework. Once this framework is in place statistics about investigation and hearing outcomes should be publicly published as requested in the petition.

In addition to increasing transparency, we could change the incentives by giving the job of hearing cases and making recommendations for sanctions to independent investigators who are not tied to the administration. Several other schools that were part of the Department of Education’s investigation, such as Amherst and Dartmouth, have already taken this step.

The third demand in the petition touches on the importance of informing and educating people about campus sexual assault policies. In 2012 [the American Association of University Professors released a guide](] for developing adequate policies and procedures for dealing with sexual assault on college campuses. Four of the twelve points highlight the importance of publicizing policies and making them clear, readable, and easily accessible. The current definition of sexual assault is inconsistent, unclear, and too broad to be practical. It is impossible to teach people how to prevent assault when you cannot clearly articulate what assault is.

This is just one example of a larger systemic problem. While sexual assault awareness and education is emphasized during orientation, this quickly peters out. Most of the general student body does not know what TIX does, and even some trained student members of the Survivor Support Network don’t understand the University Disciplinary Committee’s process. The Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Study found that 6.25 percent of students did not report their assault to Carnegie Mellon because they did not know how, did not trust the process, or did not think they would be believed. If those people started reporting, the percent of reported cases would double.

A zero tolerance policy initially sounds appealing, with its clear-cut answers and easy black and white morality. Writing clearer guidelines, publishing outcome statistics, and using independent investigators are not as flashy or as satisfying to post about on Facebook, but they are the solutions we need to be talking about.