Verbum Ultimum: Evaluating Our Standards
Reading through the 12 recommendations recently put forth by the Committee on Standards Sexual Assault Review Committee, it is clear that both praise and criticism are in order. On one hand, the recommendations are sensible, long overdue updates to the College's policies and practices regarding sexual assault. On the other hand, the recommendations shed little light on the standard of evidence used for sexual assault reviews, keeping the process muddled and prolonging the widespread perception that the system is inconsistent and unreliable.
The most praiseworthy recommendations are numbers six and nine, which would, respectively, require students with relevant information to testify at COS hearings on sexual assault and create an educational, remedial program for students who have been suspended or placed on probation due to sexual misconduct.
In the past, COS review committees have rejected the notion that student witnesses should be required to testify in COS hearings. One such committee from 2008 stated, "We do not believe that compulsory participation in the information gathering or disciplinary hearing process is consistent with values the community places on individual choice." The current committee has rightly recognized that coming forward with information about serious misconduct is an "expectation of citizenship." Belonging to the Dartmouth community is a privilege that should necessarily entail certain obligations and responsibilities, one of which is holding other community members accountable for deplorable behavior. We cannot accept a campus culture of apathy towards an issue as important as sexual assault, and enacting this Honor Code-like change in sexual assault hearing procedure could help foster a stronger culture of collective responsibility.
The recommendation for a remedial education program is also long overdue. It is incomprehensible that we have such programs for students who have been disciplined for underage drinking, but not for students who have been found guilty of a far more serious and disturbing crime.
While the proposals are laudable, it is disappointing that the committee did not take the opportunity to clarify the COS standard of evidence used in sexual assault reviews. Fair or not, there is a widely held perception among many students that the sexual assault review process is subjective and arbitrary a feeling that stems from the lack of a clearly-defined standard of evidence to adjudicate these claims. The fact that this perception exists, regardless of whether it is true, is itself a problem, but the opportunity to resolve it has now been passed by.
Sexual assault cases are among some of the most difficult to adjudicate, largely due to grey areas concerning consent and a lack of witnesses. Although the review committee's 12 recommendations address major gaps in Dartmouth's current procedures for handling cases of sexual assault, they fail to address the largest issue that looms over these COS proceedings. Until the College clarifies its sexual assault evidence standards, the progress made with these recommendations will be muted, and the review system will continue to be viewed with mistrust.
Today is the deadline for submitting feedback on the recommendations to Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson. The feedback box and report are available on the Dean of the College website. In light of the potential for change that these recommendations offer, we encourage you to read the report and voice your opinions.