Students Say Colleges Should Let Them Judge Sexual Assault Cases

February 25, 2015

By Akane Otani at Bloomberg Business

Student leaders at 76 U.S. universities are fighting the government for the right to sit on the panels that decide if someone has committed sexual assault on campus. The Department of Education has recommended that students not be involved in this process, but student body presidents at schools across 25 states, including Yale, Brown, and Barnard, say that allowing undergraduates in the room when cases are being decided is fairer for everyone involved.

“Students have a modern perspective on sexual assault and campus life that, unfortunately, faculty and staff might not have,” says Celia Wright, an Ohio State University senior, who sent a letter (PDF) on Monday to Education Secretary Arne Duncan that was signed by dozens of students. Wright, who has served on a hearing board at Ohio State for a sexual assault case (Ohio changed its policy in September of last year to ban students from these boards), added that “the presence of peers in hearings is really instrumental to ensuring people have context” for what students say. The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There’s no official ban on students sitting in on sexual misconduct panels, but in a memo (PDF) issued last year, the department said it “discourages schools from allowing students to serve on hearing boards in cases involving allegations of sexual violence,” and several schools have issued explicit rules forbidding the practice. TheUniversity of North Carolina system (PDF), citing the need for adjudicators to have “appropriate levels of experience and training,” introduced such a ban last August. So did the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.

“One of the concerns we hear a lot from victims’ advocates is that students on panels don’t necessarily know the best questions to ask, or might ask questions that are intrusive,” says Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that advocates for freedom of speech and has spoken out in defense of some students accused of sexual assault.

Students who have signed the letter say there’s no reason they shouldn’t have a say in what happens to peers when they’re accused of assault. “I don’t think it’s wise to think about this issue in the vacuum of just students interacting with other students,” says James Conwell, a Michigan State University senior who signed the letter. “If the concern is that students may have some kind of bias, professors may have that just as much.”

Schools have repeatedly grappled with how to improve the adjudication process, with some pulling in expert investigators and others paying consultants to guide them through Title IX law. The Department of Education, however, has put an ever-growing number of schools under investigation for allegedly dismissing victims’ cases or mistreating the accused, suggesting that no one has it quite figured out. Wright says if the Education Department worries that students aren’t equipped to adjudicate sexual assault cases, perhaps it has reason to worry the professors and staffers who also sit in on the cases are under-prepared, too.

“People don’t always recognize sexual assault when it happens,” she says. It’s unclear, however, if letting students make judgments about it as part of a deeply contentious process would solve that problem.

Schools: The Ohio State University