Duke admins quiet on sexual assault guideline
Although Duke put forth new sexual assault sanction guidelines this summer, administrators are not forthcoming about how the changes will work in practice.
When Duke announced a major change to the guidelines, which suggests expulsion as the preferred sanction for a perpetrator of sexual assault, the University received significant positive publicity. Although dozens of sexual assault cases come to the Office of Student Conduct each year, many administrators are unwilling to publicly discuss specifics as to how the new guideline will impact the student conduct process.
Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and director of Office of Student Conduct, declined to answer questions over the phone or in person, and other members of the student conduct staff deferred comment to Bryan. After receiving email questions about the implications of the new sexual assault guideline, he deferred all comment to Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta.
Moneta has continued to tout the positive aspects of the guideline since it was first announced, including appearing in a video on The Huffington Post. But in interviews with The Chronicle, he has said he is unable to answer numerous questions about how it will be used in practice.
“We have guidelines for most behaviors and sanctions just to provide to panels precedents for like circumstances,” he wrote in an email Aug. 24. “In general, we advise panels to apply those guidelines unless they feel there are unique or compelling mitigating factors that would justify variance.”
He could not, however, provide examples of “compelling mitigating factors.”
“We don't have strict rules because every case is different and merits thoughtful and distinctive consideration,” Moneta wrote.
Moneta said he was not aware if the new guideline was recorded in any official documents, nor could he explain the method in which the guideline would be conveyed to a hearing panel.
Sexual assault is also not defined in the Duke Community Standard. When asked about a specific definition, Moneta said it fell under the broad definition of sexual misconduct: “any physical act of a sexual nature perpetrated against an individual without consent or when an individual is unable to freely give consent.”
Duke Student Government President Stefani Jones, a senior, said she was unclear on specific circumstances in which the guideline would not be followed.
"The understanding is that the new standard is going to always be expulsion for sexual assault, and we don't expect anything other than that,"Jones said. "So we hope that that is exactly what is going to happen in the future, and that is what we have been pushing for.”
When asked the extent to which previous sexual assault guidelines have been followed, Moneta said that because so few sexual assault cases are reported to the Office of Student Conduct, he was unable to say what the most common process for doling out sanctions has been in the past.
Unlike in the judicial system, students do not need to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, a preponderance of the evidence is needed to find a student responsible—meaning that the panel must be more than 50 percent convinced that the student is responsible.
The Office of Student Conduct holds hearings to produce verdicts of responsibility or non-responsibility, as opposed to guilty or not guilty.
“First, we don't use words like ‘conviction,’” Moneta wrote of the nature of the hearings. “Let's save the courtroom language for the criminal justice system. If a student is found responsible for any violation, the sanction will generally be consistent with the sanction guidelines, but, as I said, there can be variances.”
Duke's management of the policy stands in contrast to the more transparent student conduct systems of some other universities.
Northwestern University encourages openness between students and administrators on the subjects of sexual assault and other student conduct policies, Lance Watson, Northwestern's assistant director of student conduct and conflict resolution, wrote in an email Aug. 28.
“We welcome students who have questions about our process or policies to reach out to us directly to discuss them,” Watson said. “We’re always happy to sit down and talk through the University’s expectations of students.”
A recent study found 2.8 percent of women on a college campus will experience a rape or attempted rape each year, according to Duke Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory, who would only answer questions via email.
“For last fiscal year, the Women's Center had 78 reports of rape or sexual assault,” Gregory wrote in an email Sept. 3.
Duke has 6,484 undergraduate students, meaning approximately 1 percent of students, reported being the victim of rape or sexual assault last year.
Moneta noted that the number of cases that are reported are lower than the number that truly occur on campus.
Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said she was concerned that the guideline change could deter victims from reporting an attack, and that this concern was a major consideration in the decision to make the guideline.
“It is incredibly difficult to speculate what impact this new guideline will have moving forward,” she said. “We will need to consistently monitor how frequently cases are reported.”
Gregory wrote, however, that she is not concerned that the new sanction will deter victims from coming forward following an attack.
Sophomore Daniel Kort, president of Blue Devil's United, echoed this sentiment.
"If anything, I suspect that this will actually encourage victims to come forward," he said. "The ultimate resolution will likely be that victims will no longer face the prospect of running into their offenders on a day-to-day basis."
Wasiolek added that the change is not necessarily as impactful as it was portrayed in some earlier publicity.
"I don't know if I would necessarily suggest if this is as big of a change as [The Chronicle] has previously outlined," she said.
Although the change may not be as impactful as previously suggested, administrators still feel it is a step in the right direction for the University.
“This announcement affirms the commitment that the University has to listening and responding to students, protecting the community and the survivors within it and ending sexual violence,” Gregory wrote.
Correction: Daniel Kort is the president, not the co-president, of Blue Devils United. The Chronicle regrets the error.