Face on: UVA tackles rape with new guidelines

Four months after a UVA student came forward in a Hook cover story to lambaste UVA for its handling of her sexual assault case, the school has issued a revised policy based on months of communication with students, lawyers, and sexual assault victim advocates.

"We considered every individual comment," says Pat Lampkin, UVA's vice president of student affairs. "When doing guidelines, they have to be consistent and fair to both sides."

UVA fourth year Annie Hylton, the subject of the Hook's November 11, 2004 cover story, "How UVA turns its back on rape," says that when she filed sexual assault charges against a fellow student in 2001, the process was anything but fair.

She waited three months for a hearing before the Sexual Assault Board composed of students, administrators, and faculty. Though the board found her alleged assailant guilty of some wrongdoing, he was allowed to stay at UVA and finish his degree. Hylton filed a nearly $2 million civil suit against that man, 2003 UVA graduate Matthew Hamilton, who declined comment for this story.

Hylton says when she was pursuing a hearing before the Board, University administrators told her if she talked about the case with anyone, she could face reprisals from the University Judiciary Committee– including possible expulsion.

That threatened sanction, it seems, was not just unfair– it was illegal. Backed by the nonprofit group Security on Campus, Hylton filed a complaint against UVA with the Department of Education, citing the Clery Act, a federal statute that outlaws such confidentiality requirements in cases of sexual assault.

UVA's new policy includes some changes to the confidentiality requirement. The hearing process itself must remain confidential, the new guidelines state, but once a verdict is issued, both the accuser and the accused will receive a determination letter, a document stating the accuser's name, the verdict, and the sanction imposed, if any. This information may be disclosed, the policy reads; however, the university recommends a student consult a lawyer before going public.

Hylton says this provision causes her concern.

"They're still putting some doubt into the survivors' minds about whether they can come forward and say anything about it," she says.

But Lampkin says that is not the intended effect.

"We're just doing that to help them protect themselves," she says, citing the possibility of an independently filed liable lawsuit. "We don't want to make a call for them."

In addition to the determination letter, both the accused and the accuser will receive a written explanation of how the panel came to its determination. As an "education record," this document must remain confidential, the guidelines state.

Hylton also has concerns about this new step.

"It can help," says Hylton. "But it could leave a survivor feeling unempowered." In cases where the Sexual Assault Board finds in favor of the accused, Hylton fears, a victim of sexual assault could read the opinion as, "Here's why we don't believe you."

"It's one of those things you could read over and over," she says.

But while Hylton gives the new guidelines mixed reviews, Susan Russell calls them a "solid start in the right direction."

Russell founded the website uvavictimsofrape.com after her daughter was alleged sexually assaulted at UVA in February 2004. Following the site's launch, more than 100 women contacted her to share their own experiences of being sexually assaulted at UVA. Like Hylton, Russell's daughter felt betrayed by the school's administrators and its system for handling such cases. Unlike Hylton, who will graduate from UVA in May, Russell's daughter transferred to another school to avoid being on the same campus as her alleged assailant.

While Russell is generally pleased with the new guidelines, she says the proof is yet to come.

"What needs to be seen," she says, "is if the administration will be able to adhere to the new policy and actually take a tougher stand on this problem."

Lampkin says she hopes the new guidelines will allow for a "fair, supportive process." And while she says there are no sexual assault cases currently pending, any cases reported before the end of this school year will be adjudicated under the new guidelines.

Making sure students can easily understand the guidelines, she says, is crucial. To that end, UVA is offering a redesigned sexual assault website as well as student advisors who will help both accuser and accused navigate the system. A sexual assault advisory committee will be appointed by the end of March, says Lampkin, to make sure the new guidelines are followed and to make recommendations for future adjustments in the school's sexual assault policy.

But she acknowledges it won't be possible to make everyone happy.

"It's just a tough situation," she says. "We're trying to make sure the expectations are clear."

<img src="/images/issues/2004/0345/cover_large.jpg">
The Hook 's November 11, 2004 cover story