Revamping sexual assault policy

Aug. 29, 2014 @ 02:32 PM

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released its revised sexual assault policy Thursday, more than a year after an appointed task force began crafting it.
The highlights of the new policy include defining what constitutes consent (affirmative communication) and redefining the process on how sexual assault cases will be handled. It touches on the issue of incapacitation, outlines sanctions and details the roles of investigators. It’s thorough.
UNC, along with 75 other universities and colleges, is under federal investigation for how it has handled sexual assault complaints.
Perhaps the handling – or mishandling, as the case may be -- of sexual assault cases is an artifact that lingers from the days we as a society failed to take sexual assault claims seriously.
We take it seriously enough these days to have policies and to educate our youth about it, but there remains pervasive in our culture the belief that perhaps many of those who are sexually assaulted a) deserved it because they were incapacitated, or b) were asking for it because of the way they were dressed or c) couldn’t possibly have been assaulted because s/he voluntarily went back to the person’s room. Indicative of our lack of progress in this arena is that you can run through the whole alphabet with scenarios in which the person who is assaulted would be forced to shoulder some or all of the responsibility for the assault in the minds of some.
We need to have policies in place and will continue to struggle with appropriate processes as long as rationalizations remain part of the dialogue.
With its revised policy, UNC has the opportunity to begin shaping how handling of sexual assaults should evolve among institutions of higher learning. We recognize the difficulty navigating between protecting potential victims while also ensuring those accused are not punished for false claims. It’s a minefield. And as the university crafted the revised policy, it had to use care not to go too far and become a modern-day dorm mother in the bedrooms of students. Some will argue affirmative consent does just that, but we disagree.
Definition and clarity are going to be important as UNC and other institutions find their footing on dealing with this issue.
The university is moving forward, but while the reaction among some of the university’s critics was cautiously optimistic, some very valid concerns still linger.
Chapel Hill attorney Henry Clay Turner told the News and Observer that he foresees issues with a setup that treats the accuser and accused differently, and gives Title IX investigators at the university too much power.
His concerns were echoed in The Daily Tar Heel by junior Christine Allison, who said she fears that if the Title IX Office isn’t following policy, nothing can be done about it under the revised policy.
As UNC continues to deal with how it handles assault cases, that portion of the policy is worth revisiting.