Student Body President and Vice President-External fight department of education recommendation in Washington

By Maggie Sullivan

In the fall of 2014, Mitch Dickey, student body president, and Matt Hill, vice president-external, launched the “It’s On Us” campaign on campus to raise awareness about sexual assault, but they didn’t stop there. Dickey and Hill returned from Washington D.C. on Tuesday, where they met with legislators and Department of Education officials. Dickey and Hill made plans to fight the Department of Education recommendation that students not participate in Title IX conduct hearings, the hearings of sexual assault cases on campus.

“It’s really important that students be included in these conversations, because it’s students deciding who should and shouldn’t be a part of their community,” Dickey said.

Dickey and Hill were representing the University at an event called “Big Ten on the Hill,” during which they had the opportunity to meet with other Big 10 student government members, “It’s On Us” campaign managers and policy leaders in the Department of Education, Hill said. 

“Most of the Big Ten are supportive of student adjudicators, and all of us did vote to support student adjudicators on the hearing boards,” Hill said. “I think what we’ve been seeing is universities are removing them from the hearing boards anyway.”

Dickey said that although a recommendation by the Department of Education is not a law and it carries no legal obligation, universities often feel pressured to comply because of the authority of a government entity.

While the Department of Education recommendation only advocates the removal of students from these hearings, most universities that have chosen to comply with the recommendation have also removed faculty and staff, leaving the case to one or two chosen deans, Hill said.

“It goes down to the fundamental core of what adjudication really is,” Dickey said. “Students also offer perspective generationally that faculty and staff wouldn’t have thought of.”

Currently, students who are victims of sexual assault at the University must answer questions from a panel of students and faculty as well as the accused, said Renee Romano, vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

Romano said the University will change the process regardless of the Department of Education recommendation; if approved by Chancellor Phyllis Wise, sexual assault cases will be handled like civil rights complaints as of August 2015. If the new process is approved, an investigator will speak with the victim and witnesses and then present the investigation findings to a panel, Romano said.

“I believe that students ought to be on the panel,” Romano said. “I think that students understand student culture, what goes on, and I think students typically make good decisions.”

According to the Department of Education, victims might not feel comfortable coming forward to face a panel.

“The fear is that people on panels would ask victims unfortunate questions, and almost seem like they’re putting the victim on trial, so to speak,” Romano said. 

However, she said as long as student panel members were properly trained, this would not be an issue.

“I think if we commit ourselves to a good training process for students and faculty, I think that students can make just as good of decisions as anyone.”

Another concern frequently cited by universities that choose to comply with the recommendation is if a victim had to face student adjudicators outside of the hearings, such as in class, Hill said. 

“We will have a process and procedures that prevent conflict of interest and give confidentiality to the survivor,” Hill said. “It’s a concern, but there’s ways to go about it.”

While in Washington D.C., Hill and Dickey said representatives from Congressman Rodney Davis’ office reached out to them regarding amending the current sexual assault bill on the floor in the House. Hill said he would like to see an amendment that allows universities the option to keep students on the panels in sexual assault cases if they so choose.

“We don’t have formal language for an amendment. It’s more just an idea right now, but hopefully we’ll able to work on that,” Hill said.

Romano said she will recommend students remain on sexual assault hearing panels to Wise as well. She stressed the importance of students knowing their resources in important matters like sexual assault cases.

“That’s one of the things about this new emphasis on Title IX and sexual assault,” Romano said. “We want students to know what the process is, know that there is a process, and know they can come forward.” 

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