The U has encountered a lot of issues with sexual assault in the last few months, from Halloween’s alleged assault— the investigation of which was later suspended—to stories of sexual assault published in the Daily Utah Chronicle, and two separate demonstrations protesting the way the U handles assaults.
Most recently, a group of students, alumni, staff, and faculty labeling themselves SLC Against Sexual Assault took a detailed letter of requests to a meeting with President Pershing that listed ways the school could better its response to sexual assault.
Wednesday, President Pershing sent a letter back explaining how the U has begun to respond to their requests. One response was a Presidential Task Force on Campus Safety which was created and began meeting in early January.
That task force created subcommittees to focus on “prevention; physical safety on campus; support personnel inventory; and mandatory training for students, faculty, and staff”. They will also research and make recommendations to Pershing and other administrators about new measures to be taken. Among other groups, the task force includes representatives from The Women’s Resource Center and the Center for Student Wellness— two groups the organizers specifically requested to be involved in the effort.
Pershing’s letter also announces three more Campus Sexual Assault Resources & Information Sessions for this semester: Feb. 7 at 10:30 a.m., Feb. 9 at 3 p.m., and Feb. 13 at 12 p.m. in the Union building.
As SLC Against Sexual Assault also recommended to Pershing, all officers on the campus police force have now “received trauma-informed sexual assault investigation training.” In the past, only the detectives on the force had been trained. Pershing’s letter notes, however, that those five detectives served as first responders to all sexual assault incidents.
At the U, Title IX investigations, separate from criminal investigations, have previously been required to be closed within 45 business days, fewer than the 60 day time limit required by the Department of Education. However, there is no legal limit on the length of the appeals process for a Title IX investigation, nor had there been a limit in U policy. A federal investigation has been launched into the U for the very lengthy appeals process in the case of Nisha Kavalam. Other students, who do not wish to be identified, have reported long appeal durations to the Chronicle.
Pershing’s letter to the organizers of SLC Against Sexual Assault says new policies have been proposed that would limit Title IX investigations to 60 calendar days, adding that “the office is currently reviewing and modifying procedures to streamline its processes, an effort that includes adopting a new case management system.” The letter made it unclear if changes will be made to shorten the duration of appeals to Title IX decisions.
Other changes include new resource guides and online training for U employees and a single website that introduces more transparency and centralizes information about policies, how investigations work, forms to make reports, and other resources.
In response to a story run in the Chronicle, the group asked the U to declare “status as a perpetrator [on transcripts of students found responsible for sexual assault] so future schools can take precautions for their students”.
They also asked the U to “make the names and violations of perpetrators found guilty through Title IX investigations publicly available.” This is not legally required of the U, nor are they required to keep that information private.
Pershing’s response says, “We are reviewing best practices, legal issues, and privacy rights related to public disclosures when an individual is found responsible for a violation of U policy but not charged with or found guilty of a crime.” He adds that “heavy consideration [is] being given to the implications such disclosures might have for victims.”
Also included in Pershing’s letter to the group is a note that the Utah Board of Regents, the governing body for higher education in the state, approved a policy requiring all universities and colleges in Utah to collaborate in order to address sexual assault. Among other things, that policy requires that “institutions shall jointly develop and maintain a method to communicate with other institutions regarding students who have been disciplined for serious violations of institutional policies regarding sexual misconduct, sex discrimination and harassment”.
Pershing’s letter directly addressed almost all of the group’s concerns. Mahalia Lotz, organizer of SLC Against Sexual Assault and member of the new Presidential Task Force, says, “it’s reassuring to know that President Pershing and the university administration think of open communication with the campus community as a priority.” Further, “There are many promising initiatives in the works, and we do not want them to take place behind closed doors. The wider campus community needs to know about them and have the chance to comment,” Lotz continues.
Lotz is impressed by the policy improvements the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, also known as Title IX, will coordinate.
“The work they do is crucial, and these adjustments have a lot of potential to streamline their procedures,” Lotz said.
She regards the information sessions with the hope that they will “continue this productive dialogue,” saying the group hopes the sessions will be widely publicized and well attended.
Pershing’s letter did, however, fail to address one of the group’s suggestions: increasing funding for the Women’s Resource Center, Center for Student Wellness, and Counseling Center.
Lotz says their inclusion on the task force is “a great first step, but it is not a commitment to fund these overburdened support offices sufficiently.” She hopes “resources for those offices will be increased to meet the need of the campus community”.
Geoffrey Landward, Assistant Commissioner for Policy and Planning at the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), helped coordinate research for the Board of Regents’ new policy, as well as write it. Landward involved the general counsel, deans of students, vice presidents of student affairs, local law enforcement, and even some students in the process. This collaboration helped them have conversations about needs, current policies, and how to be consistent— saying they want students in Utah to have a “universal experience” with sexual assault policies.
According to Landward, their goal was to have the new policy in regard to sexual assault by this time of 2017, saying that it’s “one of the most pressing issues they needed to deal with this year” and that the “Board had a role it needed to play.” According to him, the Board unanimously approved the policy.
Landward says they want students to know they are making a “tremendous effort to provide a safe atmosphere” in which they can pursue their education.