Susan Davis, associate VP for student affairs and Patricia Lampkin, UVA vice president and Chief of Student Affairs, smile during a press conference announcing UVA's overhauled sexual assault policy.
UVA rape victim Kathryn Russell and her mother, Susan Russell, a sexual assault victim advocate who launched www.uvavictimsofrape.com
File Photo/Courtesy Susan Russell
Yeardley Love, Liz Seccuro, Annie Hylton, and Kathryn Russell are high-profile names whose cases have given the University of Virginia a reputation for something other than academic excellence: the alleged mishandling of sexual assault and domestic violence cases. On Thursday, May 6, UVA announced it was making some changes, as Vice President and Chief of Student Affairs led a press conference announcing a complete policy overhaul which Lampkin hopes will become a "national model."
"We want people to know we care about this issue," said Lampkin.
In addition to placing more emphasis on assistance to victims, clarifying the definition of "effective consent" and "incapacitation," other proposed changes include:
•the addition of harassment, stalking, relationship violence, cyberstalking, recording or transmitting sexual images, and the knowing transmittal of an STD;
•changing the evidentiary standard from "clear and convincing evidence" (as with crimes) to "a preponderance of the evidence," (the lower threshold used in civil lawsuits);
•the elimination of mediation, in which victims would engage directly with their assailants;
•removal of time and jurisdictional limits, meaning that the university can adjudicate cases that occur off grounds and press cases well beyond the previous one-year limit to any time that the accused student is enrolled.
Lampkin acknowledges that the rewritten policy has been shaped, at least in part, by a new set of guidelines issued by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which colleges and universities must follow in order to comply with Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law best known for its role in boosting women's sports at the college level.
"We're pleased to see progress," says S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the nonprofit Security on Campus. Carter says he is particularly pleased to see the university change the standard of proof.
"That," he says, "is something we have been trying to get UVA to change for four or five years."
But while praising the effort, Carter finds that at least one significant problem remains: that under the new proposed policy, the university would still keep the reasons for rulings on sexual assault cases confidential– even from the involved parties. While UVA claims such secrecy is required by FERPA, the federal law dictating student record confidentiality, Carter believes the interpretation is incorrect; and he's not alone.
"I think when somebody goes through a panel like this, to not give them a reason for their findings can leave the survivor without closure," says Annie Hylton McLaughlin. About six years ago, via a pair of Hook cover stories ("How UVA Turns its back on rape" and "Her day in court: UVA rape case goes to trial," the now 28-year-old asserted that her alleged rape was mishandled by the university (although a jury decided in her civil action against the alleged assailant that she was simply a victim of sexual negligence).
Other sexual assault activists have mixed reactions to news of UVA's overhauled policy.
"It's a hollow victory," says Susan Russell, the founder of www.uvavictimsofrape.com, whose daughter, Kathryn Russell, left UVA after she claimed she was raped and nothing was done about it.
"The fact that they're changing protocol shows that they needed to change," says Russell. "You don't change things that don't need to be fixed."
But Liz Seccuro, allegedly raped in a UVA fraternity house in 1984 and whose assailant was convicted of aggravated sexual battery in 2007 after sending a letter of apology, says she feels hopeful.
"It's a great step in the right direction, but it means nothing unless students understand they have somewhere to go, that they can indeed say something if they see something without fear of reprisal and that the University takes this as seriously as it can," says Seccuro.
Seccuro also says the university's stated goal may be a bit lofty.
"Let's focus on being successful in Charlottesville before striving to be a 'national model,'" she says. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
The entire policy is posted online, and the university is inviting community input through May 20.