A reporter for the student-run news outlet pressed the associate dean, Nicole Eramo, about why U-Va. has not in recent times expelled students who in certain cases admit to sexual assault.
Eramo explained that the university has two methods for resolving a complaint, one through a formal hearing and the second through an informal meeting that involves the accuser, the accused and administrators. She said the choice is left up to the student who files the complaint. Students, like anyone else, also can file a police report and seek criminal charges at any time. Experts outside of U-Va. often say that the more choices students have in reporting a sexual assault, the more likely they are to step forward.
“Sometimes students choose that informal context,” Eramo told the interviewer. “They’re not looking for expulsion. They’re not looking for that type of a sanction. They’re looking to be able to look into the eyes of that other person and say, ‘You wronged me in some way.’ And they’re generally feeling quite satisfied with the fact that the person has admitted that they’ve done something wrong.”
Alex Pinkleton, a junior at U-Va., told The Washington Post that she took part in an informal proceeding in response to a sexual assault complaint she had filed. She said the informal process allowed the case to move more quickly.
Pinkleton said that she and the man named in her complaint sat together for hours in a room and discussed details about the alleged assault alongside administrators. Pinkleton said that she chose the informal proceedings because the man was days away from graduation. “Doing a formal investigation was logistically difficult,” Pinkleton said.
In the WUVA interview, Eramo was asked why the university expels students for violations of the academic honor code but not for sexual assault. She replied that honor code complaints are adjudicated by a committee that demands a high level of proof for a finding of wrongdoing, known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In contrast, she said, the university uses a lower standard of proof in sexual assault cases. It is known as “preponderance of the evidence.”
“What you’re seeing is, if a board feels they’re only 51 percent certain that somebody committed an offense, they’re not necessarily willing to expel that person permanently,” Eramo said.
But Eramo said expulsion remains an option for punishment. She pushed back against any suggestion that the university considers sexual assault a lesser offense than an honor code violation. “I just don’t buy that at all,” she said.
Eramo did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment Monday. Students have circulated a letter of support for Eramo since the Rolling Stone article was published last week. Sexual assault prevention group leaders in Charlottesville say she is their best resource in the administration, someone who is always “a text” away to help students.
The woman whose account was featured in the article said in a statement Monday that Eramo has been a life-saver and that she considers her “above and beyond the best resource the University has.”
“If it were not for her, I do not know if I could be alive today,” the woman, identified in the article as “Jackie” said in the statement, released by Sara Surface, a member of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition on campus. “When I came to Dean Eramo in my first year, I was depressed and suicidal … I was barely hanging on. … At the time, I was scared and I felt alone and I was in no position to pursue legal or University action. Dean Eramo gave me the power to make my own decisions — something so small that made me feel like I finally had some sense of control in my life.”
The group also released an open letter to the university’s president supporting Eramo. Read the letter here.
The discussion about how universities handle sexual misconduct allegations is at the center of a national debate about sexual assault on college campuses. Under a federal requirement to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, colleges have developed administrative processes that have drawn ire both from those who report sexual assaults and those who are accused of them.
Eramo’s comments draw on U-Va.’s sexual misconduct policies, which are separate from criminal investigations and criminal trials.
The image below is an excerpt of a student sexual misconduct “What You Need to Know” document from the university’s Web site, noting three options for officially reporting the attack, including going to police to file a criminal complaint or seeking either a “formal” or “informal” resolution, each of which has a lower standard of proof than criminal courts: “A preponderance of the evidence.”
This image is an excerpt of the university’s current sexual misconduct policy, adopted in July 2011, showing the parameters of an “informal resolution,” which allows for a complainant to confront the accused student and gives the accused student an opportunity to take responsibility for misconduct and accept a proposed sanction. If both the complainant and the accused agree to the proposed sanction, the complaint is resolved.
This is image is an excerpt from a proposed new sexual misconduct policy at the university, which would prevent any alleged sexual assault or misconduct involving force or violence from ending with an informal resolution.
Shapiro reported from Charlottesville.