Disciplinary changes

UW changed its student code of conduct. How will it affect rapists and rape victims?

By Sara Jerving
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Posted Feb. 28, 2010

In a controversial move, the University of Wisconsin System last fall adopted revisions to the campus conduct code that some experts say could make it easier to punish rapists, while others worry that one change could distract from the purpose of the university’s disciplinary hearings and could intimidate victims.

Because few sexual assault cases are processed through the university system, it’s too early to determine the impact of the changes, which include:

• The university’s power to punish student perpetrators was expanded to include off-campus sexual assaults.

• The burden of proof was lowered for sexual assault cases so that expulsion or suspension can be imposed if it’s shown that it is more likely than not that a sexual assault occurred.

• Students accused of sexual assault now have the right to have an attorney play a more active role on their behalf in disciplinary hearings when facing possible criminal charges or suspension or expulsion. The attorneys may question witnesses, including the victim.

Potential punishments for sexual assault include suspension or expulsion. Other discipline, such as the removal of a student from university housing, can be done immediately without a hearing, UW-Parkside Dean of Students Steve McLaughlin said.

Officials at some campuses said they were already imposing disciplinary actions for off-campus assaults before the revisions. The old code gave flexibility to campuses in deciding whether to discipline students in such cases depending on the severity of the incident.

The biggest impact of this change is a student now can be held accountable for conduct against a non-student. In the past, discipline could only be imposed if another student was victimized, said UW-Madison Associate Dean of Students Kevin Helmkamp.

Accused students will be allowed to have an adviser or attorney who under certain circumstances can question witnesses, including the victim, at hearings. The hearing examiner or committee is required to intervene if the questioning of the witness is considered inappropriate.

Some administrators worry that allowing lawyers to speak on behalf of accused students will disrupt a process that’s intended to determine whether students violated the campus’ standard of behavior –not prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

At campuses such as UW-Stevens Point, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Bob Tomlinson sees the hearings as an educational opportunity that also holds students accountable for their actions. Adding a lawyer could compromise the educational component and pit educators without legal training against lawyers, Tomlinson said.

A skilled defense attorney may give the accuser undue power in questioning the credibility of the witness in absence of the sort of protections, such as the Rape Shield Law, that the criminal system gives her, said Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Dane County.

“If you are going to do this, what are you going to do to train the people you are saying can stop the attorney from being inappropriate to make sure they know what is and what isn’t inappropriate?” Anderson said.

Some campuses are taking extra steps make the process more friendly to victims. At UW-Madison, for example, hearing officers must now be trained in sensitive crimes before they can hear such cases. UW-Stout advocates recently wrote a manual on how to more sensitively investigate alleged sexual assaults.

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