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Sexual assault task force releases initial report

Key proposals include new website, increased transparency, change to current campus culture

The Task Force on Sexual Assault released an interim report with short-term recommendations for improving the University’s sexual assault and prevention policies, President Christina Paxson P’19 wrote in a community-wide email Wednesday.

The report — compiled by a group of 17 administrators, faculty members and students — includes research conducted since the task force began its work in September and suggestions for measures to be implemented as soon as next month.

Several major concerns surface in the report about University policies and procedures on sexual assault and sexual violence, including the clarity of information and timelines, trauma enhanced by the current complaint process, weakness of sanctions for those found guilty of assault, transparency in communicating the occurrence of sexual assault to the community and a lack of sexual assault awareness training programs.

The report shows that Brown is not immune to national trends. Brown students who completed a fall 2013 survey conducted by the University reported unwanted touching and attempts to penetrate without consent over the past 12 months at levels significantly higher than national averages from the Spring 2013 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment. Almost 13 percent of Brown respondents reported experiencing unwanted touching, compared to 6.4 percent nationally, and 4.5 percent reported attempted sexual penetration without consent, compared to 2.8 percent nationally.

The need for “changing cultural norms” on campus to address sexual violence emerged as a priority in the report.

“The current norms and culture of the Brown University campus are not acceptable, and as a community we must seek in word and deed to fundamentally change that culture in order to ensure that the Brown campus is a safe and welcoming place to learn, teach, conduct research, work and live for all members of the community,” the report reads.

The document echoes the stress on “changes in policies and practices” found in the reports from the Committee on the Events of October 29, which examined the controversial protest and shutdown of a planned on-campus lecture by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Paxson told The Herald.

"Culture change is probably one of the hardest things to do in a university or in a society, and one hopes that changes in policies and practices drive culture change," she added.

In order to motivate culture change, the report suggests introducing mandatory sexual assault awareness training for all students, faculty members and staff members.

"Mandatory training is going to be an important component of what we do," Paxson said, adding that "I'm not sure exactly what form that will take...but I know we have to do it."

As the interim report mentions, Paxson has called for reforms that will position Brown as a “national leader” among universities seeking to address sexual violence on campus. Over the next couple of weeks, Paxson will consult with her staff in order to determine which recommendations the administration can implement immediately and which changes will require approval by the faculty or the Corporation, the University's highest governing body, she said.

The task force proposed in the report that major resources related to sexual assault be compiled and organized in a clear manner on a “centralized university website” before the beginning of the spring semester. One of these resources should be a graphic detailing the student conduct process and the measures available to students in the immediate aftermath of an incident, according to the report.

The task force’s members wrote that they were “struck” by how many students lack knowledge or awareness of these resources, which underscores the need for the University to better publicize them.

The proposed website featuring sexual assault resources would improve upon the current system of informing students of these resources, said Emily Schell ’16, founder of Stand Up, a student organization that aims to prevent sexual assault on campus. "How do you expect people to sift through nine websites the day after being sexually assaulted to determine a course of action?” she asked.

The task force also proposed that the appeals process should take no longer than 30 days from the time an appeal is filed to the time a decision is made. The University should also clearly communicate deadlines to the parties involved in the complaint process and make the rationale for any sanctions clear to those who receive them, according to the report.

If implemented, all of the report’s proposals will ideally lead to an unprecedented level of clarity and transparency in the University’s approach to sexual assault, said Katie Byron ’15, a member of the task force.

“Having transparent policies is part of how we build a culture of trust” between students and administrators, Byron said. She added that she hopes this trust spurs students to believe the survivors who come forward.

Schell voiced support for many of the recommendations in the report, especially the suggestion to provide students who receive sanctions with a rationale for their punishment.

“The University system actually has an opportunity here to be educational,” Schell said. Rather than simply giving sanctioned students lines out of the Code of Student Conduct delineating exactly which rules they have broken, the University should seek to explain hearing decisions in a way that makes perpetrators fully understand the consequences of their actions, she added.

But Schell said she was concerned that the report, at 25 pages, is too long. The length could deter students who are not particularly passionate about the issue from reading and engaging with the report, Schell said, adding that this could exacerbate the gap in awareness between what she perceives as a small minority of very involved students and a majority who care about the issue but are not directly involved.

The report also urges that all students sanctioned to leave the University should be removed immediately from their campus residencies and either be restricted to a specific campus function, such as attending classes, or be forbidden from campus entirely. While the Office of Student Life currently oversees this process, the task force calls for this practice to be established as an expectation and codified next semester.

The task force also suggested the incorporation of investigators, such as attorneys or professionals with other relevant experience, into the hearing process.

Investigators could “assemble facts in a way that can be useful for resolving a complaint and also take the burden off the students,” said Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy and co-chair of the task force. Some peer institutions have already adopted the practice of hiring investigators for sexual assault cases, he added.

Next semester, students will participate in a national survey organized by the Association of American Universities, Carey said. The task force recommended that the University publish the data that relates specifically to Brown.

The task force will hold further discussions and finalize its initial recommendations over the first few months of the spring semester before submitting a final report in March.

Over the next couple of weeks, Paxson will consult with staff members in the Office of the President to determine which recommendations the administration can implement immediately and which changes will require approval by the faculty or the Corporation, she said.

Before the beginning of the second semester, Paxson said she will likely release a response to the report addressing whether a certain suggestion has already been implemented, will be implemented in the future or will probably not be implemented. If the University decides not to adopt a recommendation, Paxson will explain why, she added.



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