The Department of Justice is soliciting new research to identify constructive practices in both the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault complaints on university campuses.
An April 2014 report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault identified a need to improve the understanding of current practices in college campus sexual assault investigations. In response, the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice and the Office of Justice Programs are seeking grant applications for research on how colleges and universities experiment with new methods of responding to campus sexual assault complaints.
While sexual assault experts interviewed applauded the forthcoming research as a step towards progress, some conceded that change would not come quickly.
“We’re investigating models to understand how they work, and are there promising methods that exist within these models,” Social Science Analyst for the NIJ Bethany Backes said. “A lot of schools are implementing new things, so are they helpful and are they useful both in representing the victim’s interests and holding offenders accountable? What does that look like?”
Backes said universities currently use several models to address complaints of campus sexual assault, from designated judicial review boards to those in which complaints are addressed only by the dean of students. She added that while it may be difficult to assess which practices are the most effective given specific circumstances, this type of research will yield new information on the utility of different methods currently in use.
According to Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct procedures, a formal complaint filed with the committee must be followed by a report from an independent fact-finder and at least one hearing. After the hearings, a five-person panel selected from within the UWC decides whether or not the respondent has violated University policy, and if so, will recommend a punishment. The UWC’s suggestion is then presented to a “final decision-maker” for approval or modification.
The most recent Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct, published earlier this month, listed 62 new complaints brought to the University’s attention from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2014.
Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd said it is crucial that universities have a strong and diverse body of research to supplement their own internal institutional assessments. Deputy Provost and University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler spoke along similar lines, adding that universities are eager to use the results of such research to help address and prevent sexual misconduct on their campus.
Alexa Derman ’18, public relations coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center, said the DOJ grant’s push for new information about investigation and adjudication practices will not only prompt colleges to reevaluate their own policies, but also add transparency and clear statistical information to a debate often fraught with misinformation.
“Of course, alterations to adjudication processes alone cannot transform any university’s sexual climate, but fair policies and students’ confidence in them are crucial factors in making change,” Derman wrote in an email.
Backes said one challenge to the research — typically funded by three-year grants — could be inadequate sample sizes, as a review of a university’s policies is largely dependent on how many students come forward with complaints.
However, Director of Public Policy and Communication for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services Jillian Gilchrest said this type of research could be most beneficial in encouraging victims to come forward if they have a better understanding of how their college or university would handle their complaint.
Colby Bruno, Senior Legal Counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, said it is staggering how little is currently known about rape and sexual assault on college campuses.
“What I’m looking for is a research study that is totally unbiased so that people can stop crippling about the minutiae of statistics and start getting down to solving the problem right now,” Bruno said.
Backes echoed the sentiment, saying that what sets this type of research apart from the NIJ’s previous work on sexual assault is that it avoids heavy focus on the numbers — namely that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college — to look at and give context to university practices themselves.
“We want to get away from the number and look at the practices,” she said. “We know [sexual assaults] are happening, whether one in five or one in ten, there are still too many women and men that are being victimized.”