SMU's Sexual Assault Task Force Recommends Keeping Controversial Student Conduct Panels
Prosecutors recently dropped charges in one of the high-profile cases that spurred SMU to take a long look at its often baffling handling of sexual assaults. Last night, a week-and-a-half before another student is set to go to trial on charges that he raped a classmate in a dorm room, the university publicly released the recommendations of its sexual assault task force.
The creation of the task force was partly an act of damage control by SMU President Gerald Turner, since having students' mugshots splashed across local media in connection with rape allegations doesn't exactly bolster a school's reputation. But it also seems to have been a serious and comprehensive effort to reform.
The group convened a dozen times after being formed in September. Its 20 members represent a broad cross-section of the SMU community, with students, faculty and staff from various disciplines as well as a Dallas County prosecutor and victim advocates like SMU alumna and rape victim Monika Korra and Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center co-founder Courtney Underwood Newsome. While the 22-page report avoids pointing the finger at SMU for any shortcomings, its 41 recommendations are fairly comprehensive.
The bulk of them involve improving communication. Students often aren't aware of the process for reporting sexual misconduct and can be hazy on the definition of "consent" and what misconduct entails. The task force suggests better training for faculty and staff on how to respond to reports of sexual assaults and giving them pocket-sized cards with a list of resources; implementing a "mandatory citizenship program" that teaches first-year students how to be a responsible member of the SMU community by, among other things, not sexually assaulting their peers; and developing "a comprehensive print and online" sexual assault publication. Sexual assault victims also need to be explicitly told they will be protected from retaliation and given amnesty for any drug or alcohol violations.
The report recommends keeping what has become the most controversial part of SMU's sexual assault policy, the "non-adversarial" student conduct panels, in which accuser and accused go before a panel of faculty and peers.
The main problem with the current system, the task force says, is that students don't understand the difference between pursuing a sexual misconduct case through SMU's student conduct process and pursuing the case through the police. The school needs to make it clear that they can do either or both.
You can read the full report below, but the task force gives an overview of its recommendations in the report's introduction:
While a campus with no incidents of sexual misconduct would be ideal, research suggests that a lack of sexual misconduct reports may indicate reluctance by students to come forward and report these incident. Given this context, SMU should continue to take steps to prevent incidents of sexual misconduct on our campus and involving our students, facilitate and encourage reporting of all cases of sexual misconduct, and have a clearly articulated response to reports of sexual misconduct.
Turner, SMU's president, says he agrees with every single one of the recommendations. There's no firm timeline, but Turner says the university has already begun putting them in place.