University of Virginia’s proposed rules would lower standard for sexual misconduct

May 5, 2011

Alleged rape victims at the University of Virginia would no longer be required to present “clear and convincing” evidence to prevail in the school’s judicial system under rules proposed this week, one of the first products of a federal campaign to empower victims of sexual misconduct on campus.

U-Va. is among the first universities to act on new guidelines released by the federal Education Department last month that call on universities to strengthen rules for sexual harassment and violence as a matter of civil rights.

The university responded quickly because its review was already underway. U-Va. began revising its rules on sexual misconduct in December, four months ahead of the federal directive.

University officials said it was coincidental that the institution began overhauling the rules within months of the death last spring of 22-year-old student Yeardley Love. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, George Huguely, is charged with murder for allegedly killing Love, a case that set off national debate about relationship violence.

“Sexual misconduct has no place in the university’s community of trust,” Patricia Lampkin, U-Va.’s chief student affairs officer, said in a statement Thursday.

Under the new rules, the university would broaden its definition of sexual misconduct to include relationship violence, cyber­stalking and recording or transmitting sexual images. The proposed policy also would remove existing limits on time and geography, freeing students to bring complaints about incidents outside Charlottesville and to pursue cases from years past.

Nearly one young woman in five at college will be the victim of sexual assault or attempted assault, according to Justice Department statistics. U-Va. and many other universities have faced mounting criticism of their handling of rape cases. A broad investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in 2010 found that many cases ended in nominal academic penalties or no punishment at all. The center also reported allegations that some students — including a rape victim at U-Va. — were threatened with punishment if they spoke out.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said most schools do their best to protect the rights of both victim and accused in misconduct cases.

“These are really very complicated cases,” she said. “They are not as simple as they are often made out to be.”

Key language in the new federal guidelines instructs colleges to judge whether “it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred,” the standard for civil rights cases.

Most colleges already follow that standard. But some, including U-Va., hold victims to the higher standard of “clear and convincing” evidence. A few, including Stanford, set an even higher bar and required victims to prove their cases “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Stanford revised its policy last month.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of modified policies coming out,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of Security On Campus, a nonprofit advocacy group. Kiss’s group estimates that 10 to 30 percent of colleges hold rape victims to an inappropriately high standard of evidence.

An informal survey of Washington-area schools found that a few, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., have revisited their sexual misconduct rules. Others report that they plan to this summer.

Some schools will have to revise their rules to eliminate mediation hearings, an option available to sexual assault victims on some campuses. The federal guidelines say mediation is inappropriate in such cases.

U-Va. officials said they hoped the new rules will become a national model. The eight-page document awaits review by President Teresa Sullivan and would take effect by July.

The new rules drew both praise and criticism from the small but vocal community of sexual assault victims and their families.

Susan Russell, mother of a rape victim and founder of the support group UVA Victims of Rape, said the proposed rules “cover many of the points I have been writing about for the past seven years.”

But she contends that it “took the death of Yeardley Love to wake up the administration,” and she said the institution “cannot forget the hundreds of women who were raped on that campus and treated as if their crime were an insignificant matter.”

Responding to the criticism, Susan Davis, a U-Va. student affairs official, said: “We’re focusing on our students who are here now. Allow us to change.”

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