On April 13, the Joint Committee on Higher Education within the Massachusetts’ Legislature held a legislative hearing. It discussed, among several other pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 706 / House Bill 632: An Act Relative to Sexual Violence on Higher Education Campuses.
Though well-intentioned, this bill would only worsen the ways in which colleges and universities in Massachusetts address sexual violence.
Any piece of legislation, whether it be in Massachusetts or at the federal level, which seeks to address this serious issue ought to do so in a manner that at least satisfies the following three standards.
1. Cases must be investigated and adjudicated by proper parties and in a proper forum.
All cases involving sexual violence on campuses of higher education should be promptly handled by impartial and independent third-parties (i.e. forums outside of our schools). The officers involved in these forums should be properly trained, and have experience in legal proceedings.
Federal policies regarding Title IX implementation have resulted in college administrators serving as investigators and decision-makers in cases of sexual violence. Unfortunately, despite millions of dollars being spent to maintain compliance with the federal guidance and policy on this matter, the results have been unsatisfactory.
Hundreds of schools across the nation now find themselves on the receiving end of complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education and/or as defendants in federal and state lawsuits. These complaints and lawsuits are being filed by former complainants and respondents in sexual misconduct cases. Both parties feel aggrieved by school administrators and claim that they are not receiving fair, impartial, equitable proceedings.
To remedy this major problem, these cases should be moved away from the jurisdiction of our schools and into the hands of a third-party forum composed of properly trained investigators, adjudicators, and specialists to accommodate for either parties wide range of needs.
2. Equitable resources must be offered to both parties.
Involvement in a campus sexual misconduct case is extremely stressful for both parties. To address this, legislative efforts like SB 706/HB 632 often provide ample resources for complainants to utilize during the process. However, they are often silent in regard to resources for respondents.
This is unacceptable.
Complainants and respondents have different responses and needs while involved in campus sexual misconduct proceedings. It is not uncommon for respondents to become depressed or suicidal, not only during the proceedings but also after a finding has been made.
Only requiring higher education institutions to provide services to one party is not the way to establish equitable proceedings.
3. Appropriate accommodations must be granted to students with social/emotional disabilities.
Students who are diagnosed with some form of social or emotional disorder – Anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, Aspergers, Autism, or similar conditions – need to have accommodations granted to them if they find themselves involved in one of these cases.
Some students in this population have difficulty understanding social cues and nuances, or may have bad reactions to stressful social situations. To not account for these possibilities during these serious cases is to leave behind a population of individuals who too often get ignored when policies are being crafted and passed.