On Oct. 2, 2010, the University of Maine in Orono learned of potential sexual misconduct by a student on campus.
Through the school’s disciplinary process, the student was found responsible for violating the university’s stalking and relationship abuse policy, harassment, substantial disruption of activities, violating the alcohol policy, possession of alcohol by a minor, causing imminent physical harm, engaging in conduct that endangers others and significant interference with the normal residential life of others.
We don’t know what exactly the student did because the university enforces its conduct code in an administrative manner, not in a public court of law. The name of the offending student, which the university refers to as the “respondent,” is confidential.
But we know the university handed down the following sanctions: probation, residence hall relocation, a meeting with a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, a meeting with a dean and what was recorded as “other sanction,” which typically involves education-related discipline such as community service or writing a reflection paper.
In the last five years, there have been 62 reported cases involving sexual violence, harassment, stalking, hazing, intimidation or physical assault among students at the University of Maine. Of those cases, 47 students were found responsible for violations through the school’s hearing process, according to university records. In several cases, victims dropped the complaint; in other cases, respondents were found “not responsible” but still faced sanctions, such as no-contact orders.
In that time, one student was expelled and eight were suspended. The majority of punishments for the range of policy violations included probation, required meetings with school officials, no-contact orders and the completion of community or education-related projects.
Did those sanctions improve students’ safety? How should universities and colleges punish students who violate administrative policies but haven’t always been convicted in court?
“I think most universities have their own [guidelines for sanctions], and it really is dependent on the culture of that institution,” said David Fiacco, the director of UMaine’s Office of Community Standards, Rights and Responsibilities. “Ours fall in line with what are the generally accepted practices,” which are guided by the Association for Student Conduct Administration and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.
For S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative at the VTV Family Outreach Foundation in Virginia, the question is whether disciplinary proceedings at colleges contribute to a culture that rejects sexual violence. The problem is that colleges and students have little solid information about what works.
“More research on how colleges and universities handle sexual violence is essential, with the conduct process being a very important part of that. There is a significant dearth of information available,” Carter said. “I frequently get asked questions to which there is no answer because the data does not exist, because it has not been studied, because there have been barriers to gathering the information, because it has not been funded.”
Universities and college campuses are bound by law to investigate cases of sexual violence and harassment and punish those found to have violated the school’s policies. It’s a separate process from the criminal justice system — purposefully crafted to allow administrators to act quickly to protect students.
Universities have been investigating incidents and disciplining students for centuries. It’s similar to how employers act when their employees commit minor infractions or full-fledged crimes. A company is unlikely to wait months or years for a conviction in court to fire an employee charged with embezzlement, for instance.
“As an institution of higher learning or an employer or any other agency, you would want to hold your employees or your students or your association members accountable to a certain standard of conduct,” Fiacco said.
Colleges are required by the federal law Title IX to act immediately — and independent of police — to investigate incidents and protect students. They can take action, such as removing a student from a residence hall, before the disciplinary hearing process takes place.
“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights told schools in a 2011 letter.
When the University of Maine learns of a possible code violation, officials investigate to see whether the complaint has merit. A hearing may then be held in which a hearing officer or a committee decides, by a “preponderance of the evidence,” whether the student conduct code has been violated and, if so, what the punishment will be. Both sides have the right to appeal.
It’s up to the victim, not the school, to report a sexual assault to police, though the school informs the student of available support services and criminal justice options.
Much national attention has been drawn to sexual assaults on college campuses in recent years, prompting cries for change from federal, state and local officials. Many colleges have made good-faith efforts to update their policies and procedures to prevent future assaults. For instance, UMaine opened an office of sexual assault and violence prevention in August 2013 to process sexual abuse complaints, conduct investigations and offer support for victims.
Some argue colleges have swung too far in the direction toward punishing students without hard proof, while others say colleges still have a long way to go to hold students accountable.
The truth is, it’s hard to know, given the limited public information and research on the subject, whether specific sanctions are effective — by reducing re-offenses, making students feel safer, teaching offending students important lessons and contributing to a campus culture that encourages students to come forward and have faith in the disciplinary process.
“What I think we sometimes see in responses to sexual violence, within an institution, is a natural instinct to protect the institution — be that in the situation of a church or a long-term care facility or a college or university,” said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, the executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
It’s important for schools to ensure student victims have access to advocates to help them navigate the complaint process, make sure no one discourages students from going to police and make certain all people determining the outcome of sexual violence cases on campus have a significant amount of training on the dynamics of sexual assault, she said.
At the University of Maine, the most common sanction handed down to students found responsible for a range of infractions that include stalking, harassment, sexual abuse, or physical intimidation or assault, between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2014, was probation, with a total of 38 instances. Each case resulted in students being found responsible for a number of infractions, and it’s not possible to break out the type of sanction handed down for each individual violation, as would be possible in a court finding. Sanctions are crafted based on the circumstances of each individual case.
Probation effectively puts the student and college on notice. If the student were to repeat the offense, he or she would likely receive a more severe punishment. For the purposes of this piece, “probation” encompasses disciplinary probation, deferred disciplinary suspension, deferred housing suspension and official warnings.
The second most common sanction during that time period was “loss of contact.” In a total of 22 instances, people found responsible for violating the campus code were prohibited from contacting the complainant or others involved.
The third most common sanction came in the form of educational or “alternative” punishments, in 21 instances. Sometimes the university refers to them as “other sanctions,” which could involve doing research projects, writing reflection papers, completing community service or participating in the outdoors adventure program, Maine Bound. The university also often recommends counseling or requires an assessment with a credential professional.
Fiacco, with UMaine, said his first priority is ensuring the safety and welfare of students. But sometimes students can benefit from more educational activities, to “redirect the students’ energies” and introduce them to different social networks. Instead of going out to drink, students might go rock climbing, he said, to “force them out of their comfort zone, to meet with other students doing other activities.”
In a case reported to the university in September 2013, a student was found responsible for possession of alcohol by a minor, violating the residence hall contract and discriminatory harassment, which is harassment or discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age or disability. The student was found not responsible for sexual harassment. The punishments were deferred disciplinary suspension, which is a type of probation, 10 hours of community service and participation in the Maine Bound program.
Laura Dunn is a survivor of campus sexual assault and serves as the executive director and founder of SurvJustice, a national advocacy organization. Dunn said schools should be careful not to reinforce unhealthy misconceptions — such as the idea that counseling or writing reflective essays will help rehabilitate offenders — and no one should consider an outdoor adventure program a punishment.
Writing an essay or being told to participate in what could be a fun activity are not appropriate punishments, especially when students are found responsible for acts that could qualify as crimes in a legal setting. Why? “You haven’t addressed the hostile environment at all,” she said.
“No student should be able to ‘learn’ from violating another student’s body,” she said. “You don’t deserve to be on campus with that survivor.”
“The colleges that do it right are expelling or suspending.”
The broader question
Carter, with the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, said the broader question is whether sanctions at universities contribute to students’ feeling of safety and faith in the campus judicial process. There are many barriers to reporting sexual assault: fear of retribution, fear anonymity will not be preserved, and social pressures, among others. The conduct hearing process is often another.
“Lack of effective justice can be a major barrier to victims and survivors pursuing an investigation if they know through what they’ve heard in the community that people found responsible for committing a sexual assault, for example, receive a deferred suspension, not an actual suspension or expulsion. They may elect not to pursue based on that because they may feel that a no-contact directive is not sufficient,” he said.
According to UMaine’s records, most students reporting sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking in the spring and fall of 2013 did not pursue investigations, whether through the conduct hearing process or police. Of the 33 students who reported sexual assaults in that time, 23 did not pursue an investigation. Of the 32 students who reported sexual harassment, 21 did not pursue an investigation. And of the four stalking reports, three did not pursue an investigation.
When student complainants did come forward, about 44 percent of stalking, sexual violence, harassment, sexual harassment, hazing, and physical assault or threatening allegations resulted in the offending student being found responsible.
Several complainants did not want to provide the university with the name of the potential offender; several could have filed a police report without the university’s knowledge. But the numbers are consistent with what experts know about people who experience sexual violence or harassment: It’s hard to talk about, and the formal disciplinary or criminal process can be daunting.
And while it’s probably good that more students are coming forward at UMaine — mirroring a nationwide trend — there is less information about whether victims there, and at campuses across the country, are getting justice from the process.
The National Institute of Justice reviewed the sanctions handed down at colleges and universities across the country in 2005, but “a large gap remains in the research as to the effectiveness of such sanctions at preventing sexual assault victimization and perpetration among college students,” said Bonnie Fisher, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice and author of campus sex crimes studies. “Knowing about the effectiveness of these sanctions is a next logical step in preventing sexual assault among college students.”
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.