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Utah public colleges changing how they dispense discipline for sexual assault

First Published      Last Updated Nov 02 2016 09:04 pm

Justice » Critics question whether administrative panels should rule on criminal offenses.

Cedar City • At colleges and universities throughout Utah, school panels originally intended to address cheating or plagiarism act as judge and jury for students accused of sex offenses.

The closed-door, federally recommended proceedings are designed, administrators say, to make students feel safe and to educate, not brand anyone as a criminal. But critics say schools need more oversight in handling violent crimes — and question whether they should at all.

In response to this national and local debate, the Utah System of Higher Education is standardizing the process for responding to rape and sexual assault at the state's public colleges.

On Friday, Utah's Board of Regents approved a new policy outlining minimum standards for the student disciplinary process — guaranteeing students the right to an attorney or adviser who may make opening statements at formal hearings, and stipulating that colleges and universities can levy sanctions even if an accused student refuses to participate in the disciplinary proceeding.

Geoff Landward, an assistant commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the policy ensures fairness for everybody involved in campus discipline.

"We don't want to create any kind of chilling effect for people to report misconduct," Landward said. "We want to make sure [students] feel safe engaging in these hearings, while at the same time recognizing that we need to guarantee that anyone who has been accused of something should have a fair process to defend themselves."

In addition to the new policy, Landward said, Utah higher education leaders are in the process of forming a task force to study how individual campuses respond to allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment of students.

But he added that those actions may not end discussion — and potential controversies — over campus discipline and the competing priorities of student safety and due process rights.

"We hope that this works," he said. "If we see that it is not, we're going to have to come back and have this conversation further."

Representation and protection • If a student at a Utah college accuses another of sexual assault and requests a formal investigation, school officials interview witnesses and the accused student and determine whether campus policy was violated.

If the accuser or the accused is dissatisfied with the conclusion administrators reach, he or she may ask that the case be reconsidered. Appeals generally trigger the formation of a disciplinary panel made up of volunteer faculty, staff and, sometimes, students.

Click here to see the investigation processes at 10 Utah colleges.

At Utah State University, investigators send their findings to Krysten Deschamps, director of student conduct, to take disciplinary action. Her decision can be appealed to a panel of four faculty members and two professional staff members.

Appeals have become more common over the past two years, Deschamps said, as campus sexual assault gets more attention.

"Now a student appeals almost every time," she said, because there's "better awareness of students' rights."

Students accused of sexual assault in other states have successfully sued their universities for denying them due process in these proceedings.

In April, a California appeals court ruled against the University of Southern California, faulting the school for not allowing a male student accused of sexual assault to review the evidence against him.

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