College expands definition of consent

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October 23, 2014

10:47 PM

Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D. ’06 announced last week that the College of William and Mary’s policies and procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct are undergoing revisions to clarify expectations and comply with the Office for Civil Rights’ recommendations.

Student Affairs, the Office of Compliance, William and Mary Police, the University Council and the greater university administration convened this summer in a two-day summit to analyze the ways the current code could be improved. The final draft, which was released to students for commentary and suggestions last week, includes expanded definitions of concepts such as consent and sexual misconduct, and adds faculty members to the process of reporting and trying a case of sexual misconduct.

Last spring, the College was listed among universities being investigated for compliance with Title IX. However, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct Dave Gilbert said the policy revisions were not written as a response to the investigation; rather, plans for the summit preceded the OCR’s announcement.

“We had planned the summit prior to finding out about the OCR investigation, and it has been in the works for some time,” Gilbert said in an email. “We felt the time was right for us to take a comprehensive look at our behavioral expectations of students, our policies, our procedures, our training, our outreach and education work with students in helping them understand healthy sexual relationships, etc.”

Gilbert and Chief Compliance Officer and Title IX Coordinator Kiersten Boyce both said that the current Code of Conduct contains inconsistencies in regard to the level of intoxication under which a person can no longer provide consent. They said that the proposed revisions aim to make clearer what has typically been seen as a very gray area.

The new policy says that, when drugs or alcohol are involved, incapacity is “a state beyond mild intoxication, and is a continuum understood with respect to how the alcohol consumed impacts a person’s decision-making capacity and awareness of the details of a sexual interaction.”

“The group …  [concluded] that at some point, one who is significantly intoxicated can no longer communicate clearly, process information quickly and accurately, or appreciate the consequences of various decisions,” Gilbert said an email. “We also agreed, however, that a standard of any amount of alcohol consumed equals inability to consent would prove problematic and, perhaps, unrealistic in application.”

HOPE Vice President of Healthy Relationships/Sexual Aggression Jordan Taffet ’16 urges the College to take a harder line on the effect alcohol or drugs have on one’s ability to give consent.

“The whole nature of alcohol and any sort of mind or body-altering substance is that once you’ve had a drop of it … the effect is not easily measured,” Taffet said. “So mild intoxication for one person may mean fully intoxicated for another, and determining that after the fact is going to be very difficult. … So I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it may need more clarification later on.”

The term “sexual misconduct” includes not only non-consensual sexual contact, but also dating violence, domestic violence and stalking. The new policy updates the definitions to comply with the Violence Against Women Act. On the procedural end, amendments have been made to incorporate more faculty and administrative members to the process of investigation and adjudication, allow hearing officers to serve multi-year terms, and give the Provost automatic review of appeals.

The entire process of reporting an incident — from the initial filing to the notification of decisions — is outlined into 22 steps over 60 days, which is the OCR-recommended time limit. With appeals, though, the process may extend beyond that time frame.

“I doubt there is any institution for which the 60-day limit isn’t a challenge, at least in some cases,” Boyce said in an email. “I’ve been very impressed by how promptly the Dean of Students Office conducts thorough interviews with parties and witnesses. But that investigation phase is only part of the total process, and every stage takes time, often in cooperation with other offices. Getting everything scheduled, documented, communicated, and done within 60 days is a challenge.”

Nate Heeter ’15, Secretary of College Policy & Student Rights for the Student Assembly, added that the Student Assembly has begun discussing the new policy with the College community.

“The Student Assembly has begun reviewing the new policies and procedures, and we look forward to discussing the proposal with students and administrators,” Heeter said. “As the national debate on this issue continues, I expect policies at William and Mary and around the country will be further evaluated and refined. The Student Assembly will closely monitor this policymaking process now and in the future, always seeking to ensure campus safety as well as equitable due process for all parties involved.”

The revisions will remain open for student commentary and suggestions until Nov. 7, when Ambler will either forward the proposal to College President Taylor Reveley for approval, recommend that modifications be made to the document, or withdraw the proposal.

With the OCR investigations underway and the nationwide discussion of affirmative consent taking place, sexual assault on college campuses is a popular topic for debate. While he commended the College for joining the conversation, Taffet said he worries that’s all it is: a response to a fad.

“I’m just glad that it’s happening,” Taffet said. “I really wish it were more of a proactive thing just in the sense that it didn’t take this level of controversy and upset to really jumpstart this movement … everything from Sigma Chi to the sexual violence that you hear about on a daily basis taking place on campus or off campus, the Title IX investigations. It feels like relational violence is kind of the hot topic of today, and part of me worries that it’s not coming out of a genuine concern for this topic as opposed to ‘this is what people are focusing on now — we’d better act on it.’ … and I’m not accusing the administration of doing that, I’m just worried that that could be the case.”

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Sarah Caspari

Senior staff writer Sarah Caspari '15 is an English and Latin American studies major from Montvale, N.J. She was previously Chief Staff Writer, Variety Editor and Associate Variety Editor.