Schools around the country are struggling to address what some say is an epidemic of sexual violence. The U.S. Department of Education, members of both houses of Congress, and well as many academics and non-profit leaders, have been involved in crafting guidelines for college and universities to use in creating a safe environment on campus.
This morning, the Southern Accent, student newspaper for Southern Adventist University, reported that the university has updated its sexual misconduct policy to further comply with federal government guidelines (see Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies). A "mock trial" was also organized by campus leaders with the goal of starting a conversation about consent as well as illustrating the complexities of sexual violence cases. Many observers, however, were not happy with process or the result. One or more jurors, chosen at random, found the defendant not guilty resulting in a hung jury. A current Southern Adventist student told me, however, that this result highlighted for her the reality that these cases can be difficult to adjudicate and the outcomes are far from certain. School officials also scheduled a Q & A session for Thursday evening.
The student paper reported that the following wording was added to the sexual misconduct policy:
"...to encourage reporting, the university may, where appropriate, offer leniency with respect to other policy violations. The nature and scope of the leniency depends on the particular circumstances involved."
This particular addition appears to be a response to policy recommendations from a White House Resource Guide that provides support to "students, faculty, administrators, and communities around the country to prevent and improve the response to sexual violence at colleges and universities." One portion of the resource guide advises schools to "describe when the school will grant amnesty from drug, alcohol, and other student conduct policies."
There is also a bill under debate in Congress, one section of which reads,
"(5) The institution shall provide an amnesty clause for any student who reports, in good faith, sexual violence to a responsible employee so that they will not be sanctioned by the institution for a student conduct violation, such as underage drinking, that is revealed in the course of such a report."
The intent of amnesty clauses is to allow students to report sexual assault without fear of punishment for other policy or legal violations. This fear of reprisals is thought to prevent young people from reporting sexual assault, said Annie Clark, co-founder of End Rape on Campus (EROC).
However, things aren't quite that simple at Southern Adventist and other faith-based institutions. For religious schools like Southern Adventist, policy violations include all drinking of alcohol, sex outside of marriage, all "homosexual behavior." Because of this, the issue is once again clouded, especially in light of Southern Adventist's vague statement about "leniency."
"There is a very important difference between how people feel morally and a felony," said Clark. "It's the difference between sex and a crime. The policy change is small step in the right direction, but needs to be clarified."
"The conditional offer of leniency is hardly building a safe space for victims of sexual assault," said Katie Freeland, a 2011 graduate of Southern Adventist University. "Under what circumstances might this 'leniency' be denied?"
Speaking to the Southern Accent, Dennis Negron, vice president of Student Services, said, "This statement is not to condone other actions [such as drinking alcohol or engaging in consensual sex], or to say that they are less important than sexual misconduct. The motivation for the statement is to get survivors to come forward."
Speaking to me moments before the beginning of the Q & A session on Thursday evening, Mr. Negron clarified that Southern Adventist University is "trying to create an environment where all victims feel comfortable coming forward. We will not only listen to them but will take their situation seriously." He further expressed that, in the case of drinking, under age or otherwise, students should report sexual assault without fear of punishment themselves.
It remains to be seen if victims will, in fact, feel safer reporting cases of sexual assault, especially with such a tendentially worded offer of protection.
Southern Adventist University is a 3,174-student, liberal arts university, owned and operated by the Southern Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.