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Colleges seek creative ways  to define consent, stop rape

There’s no one right way for a college or university to write and enforce a sexual misconduct policy or to encourage victims to report sexual crimes, but there are what are considered “best practices” suggested by advocates. And a few colleges outside the Pioneer Valley have launched innovative programs and services to stop sexual violence.

The University of Virginia has a Sexual Assault Leadership Council that consists of the three student peer education groups and a feminist group dedicated to ending sexual violence.

The council helps organize Take Back the Night events and Domestic Violence Awareness Week, among other events. The three peer education groups include Sexual Assault Facts and Education (SAFE), a group of trained student-advocates for sexual assault survivors; the Sexual Assault Peer Advocates, which seeks to promote support for sexual assault survivors through presentations to the community; and One in Four, an all-male peer education group that talks to men about how to help survivors of sexual assault and end violence against women.

Another group called the Men’s Leadership Project is dedicated to promoting healthy ideas of masculinity and nonviolence. The university also promotes third-party anonymous reporting of sexual assaults and rapes.

At Colgate University in upstate New York, meanwhile, students may take a non-credit five-day class called Yes Means Yes, which looks broadly at sexuality at the university in addition to defining consent.

Drake University in Iowa encourages reporting of sexual assault and rape by providing immunity to victims and witnesses. The university’s “Understanding Sexual Assault” brochure notes victims and witnesses may be hesitant to report a sexual crime out of fear of being charged with another policy violation that occurred around the same time as the assault, such as drinking in a dorm, drinking underage or smoking marijuana. Excluded from immunity, however, are students accused of encouraging or voluntarily participating in the assault.

And here are some examples of best practices for college and university sexual assault, harassment and/or misconduct policies offered by Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), a Columbia University-based volunteer organization made up of students who want to end sexual violence, and Brett Sokolow, founder of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a Pennsylvania-based law firm representing colleges and providing sexual misconduct training for members of academic hearing boards.

∎ Be clear: Sexual assault policies need to be written in unambiguous language to set standards of behavior for the student population and lay out a clear path for justice so that accused and accusers know their options and understand the process.

∎ Immediate support: Provide easily accessible avenues for victim support, such as setting up a rape crisis hotline, having crisis advocates available 24/7 and educating the campus about services.

∎ Define sexual assault: Taking a hard line on what is and isn’t sexual assault and harassment, rape and consent helps to educate the campus. The University of Massachusetts, for example, defines consent as “informed, freely, and actively given, mutually understandable words or actions which indicate a willingness to participate in mutually agreed upon sexual activity.” The university also notes that consent can be withdrawn. Consent cannot be given if the person is unconscious, mentally unfit due to alcohol or drugs or under age 16.

∎ Make no geographical limitations: Even if a rape allegation is made at an off-campus location, the accused should still be held accountable by the college community.

∎ No time limits on invoking a sexual assault hearing.

∎ Be up front about reporting: Let students know what will happen if they report a rape to police and wish to remain anonymous or do not want to pursue a college hearing or legal charges.

∎ Use the preponderance of evidence standard: According to the “Dear Colleague” letter, guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2011, college and university hearing boards should be using the preponderance of evidence standard — which means it is more likely than not a crime was committed — when adjudicating sexual assault cases.

∎ Forget about mediation: The “Dear Colleague” guidelines state that mediating an allegation of rape or sexual assault is not a useful option, though students may seek to pursue justice through a formal or informal process.

∎ Make sanctions known and be specific about what they are. Students should be aware of what the consequences might be if a person is found to have committed a sexual assault.

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