Are students s**t outta luck in trying to change back the statute of limitations (SOL) under Duke’s sexual misconduct policy?
Last year the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released what is known as the “Dear Colleague” letter. It explained that the requirements of Title IX relating to sexual harassment also cover sexual violence. These guidelines advised that there couldn’t be variance among a university’s policies for different forms of harassment. Not all universities interpreted these recommendations in the same way.
In our particular case, Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity reduced our sexual misconduct policy’s statute of limitations (the period during which complainants are able to bring a case forward) from two years to one year, to align with the University-wide harassment policy. The Office of Institutional Equity also lowered the evidentiary standard from “clear and convincing” to “a preponderance of evidence.” This was a positive development, but it all may be a wash if we’re discouraging victims from reporting with this more restrictive window.
Duke is somewhat unique for having a SOL in the first place. Schools such as Columbia, Brown, Georgetown, Princeton, Harvard and Dartmouth have no SOL for incidents of sexual misconduct. DSG Vice President of Equity and Outreach Stefani Jones, Trinity ’14, contacted a list of our peer institutions and found that we’re special—even Stanford and Yale have a two year statute, rather than one.
I interviewed Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta to get a clearer picture of what the rationale was for changing the policy in this manner. “The only unfortunate thing in this whole conversation is that [though] this issue of the statute is an important one, it’s not nearly as important as everything else we’ve done, because I think we’ve done an amazing amount of things to try to really address gender violence,” Moneta said.
The terrifying thing is that we’re still only scratching the surface of the number of cases of sexual assault. The oft-cited statistic is that at least one in five women is a victim of gender violence in college. We know underreporting is rampant: Only six reports were brought to the Office of Student Conduct last year, according to the Women’s Center.
If we already know that we don’t have an environment conducive toward reporting, then why would a restrictive time period produce better results? Shouldn’t the administration think it’s in their interest to create an atmosphere that supports victims?
Then there’s the issue of Duke’s public image. Imagine a victim discovering 13 months after her/his assault that she/he can’t report through the school’s channels. The victim then goes to the press. What would it look like for Duke’s administrators to have to say, “Well this is just our policy?” No one outside of the administration cares about the intricacies of how the Office of Institutional Equity would have to go about changing the policy. It looks like we’re more concerned with protecting perpetrators.
Another issue for Moneta is that of opportunity costs. He emphasized the work of the Gender Violence Task Force in providing bystander intervention trainings through the Women Center’s Prevent Act Challenge Teach (PACT) program. “If you ask me personally where I put my energy, the change from one year to two years could potentially have value. It’s a tiny amount of value versus the effort I’d want to put into preventing [gender violence] in the first place.... I have no objection to a change in the statute, but if I were going to mount all of my resources to do something, that’s not where I’m going to put the energy.”
None of these efforts are mutually exclusive. There is simply no merit in the argument that attempting to change the SOL stymies other initiatives.
I asked what happens if the time period elapses. “Even outside of the SOL for formal adjudication, nothing prevents us from still taking some action.…We would never say to a victim, ‘Sorry there’s nothing we can do.’ We may say, ‘That particular tool is not at our disposal now,’ but there are many other tools we can bring to bear,” Moneta responded.
I can’t imagine how traumatizing it would be to see one’s perpetrator walking around campus and potentially committing more assaults because of a technicality that we could change. I would hope that we would all consider this a meaningful and urgent task if we could help even one student come forward. It remains unclear what we’re worried about. If both the complainant and the respondent are still here, the allegation is troubling and the evidence is available, then why would it matter exactly how many months after the incident happens a complainant reports?
Sunhay You (Trinity ’13), a Women’s Center intern and editor of Develle Dish, said, “Our efforts to change the SOL won’t be wasted because in the process the student body will have to reckon with why it’s so difficult for students to report a case of sexual assault in the first place, such as rape myths and victim-blaming that are all part of the rape culture at Duke.”
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. You can follow her on Twitter @SamLachman.