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UVa plans to revise sexual misconduct policy

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Posted: Thursday, May 5, 2011 10:00 pm | Updated: 1:46 pm, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

The University of Virginia plans to revise its sexual misconduct policy to broaden the scope of offenses and to lower the standard of evidence necessary to find a student guilty.

Under the policy, sexual misconduct would become the umbrella term to include any unwelcome sexual behavior. The revision more precisely defines what constitutes assault, harassment and exploitation, including offenses such as cyberstalking, the recording of sexual images and the knowing transmission of a sexually transmitted infection.

The policy also would eliminate the geographic limit on UVa’s jurisdiction, which under current policy covers university property or a student or employee residence within the city of Charlottesville or Albemarle County.

The review of the policy began in December, but changes were made last month as the result a “Dear Colleague” letter sent all schools by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.

That letter, which warned of “deeply troubling” statistics on sexual violence at colleges and high schools, has other universities examining their policies also.

The College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University were among state schools that said they will review their policies in light of the new OCR guidelines.

Because of the letter, UVa changed its evidentiary standard from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence” — essentially basing a decision on whether the incident is deemed more likely than not to have occurred, said Susan Davis of UVa’s Office of Student Affairs and liaison to Office of the General Counsel.

That lower standard has been “a lively topic” of discussion since UVa posted the proposed changes on its website Wednesday night, Davis said. It also has been challenged as a limit on due process by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.

Although UVa has a single sanction of expulsion for cheating, the repercussions for sexual misconduct vary.

Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, said UVa intends for its policy to be a national model for universities. Its goal is to provide support for victims while respecting the due process and privacy rights of accused students.

The university is accepting comments on the changes, but expects them to be approved by UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan before new students arrive for orientation this summer.

The policy review follows last year’s slaying of UVa lacrosse player Yeardley Love and last fall’s “Day of Dialogue” about campus violence. But UVa spokeswoman Carol Wood said the review was not the result of the slaying of Love, who died just before her graduation. Her former boyfriend, George Huguely, who was also a lacrosse player at UVa, will be tried in February on charges that include first-degree murder.

Wood said the review was due this year and is the first major revision of the policy in five years. She said the new policy will create “one clear door” for handling all student-on-student claims of sexual or gender discrimination. Previously, some claims may have been handled by a student-run judiciary committee, for example.

The new policy also would eliminate the time limit for a complaint, which is currently one year from the incident. Under the proposed policy, a complaint can be made as long as the accused is still a university student.

The policy also seeks to clarify what constitutes “effective consent” and “incapacitation,” which play a central role in most sexual misconduct cases.

To comply with the OCR letter, UVa will drop mediation as an option for student complainants, although an informal adjudication will be available.

Although some students who chose mediation would not have filed a formal complaint, OCR objected to its use because it did not address the overall safety of the community, said Nicole Eramo, associate dean of students and chair of the Sexual Assault Board.

The OCR’s “Dear Colleague” letter says that Title IX requires schools receiving federal financial assistance to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and violence.

The letter cites a National Institute of Justice report that 1 in 5 women are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault on campus, as are 6.1 percent of men. In 2009, 3,300 forcible sexual offenses were reported by colleges and universities under Clery Act disclosure rules.

 Kapsidelis reports for The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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