We are writing to bring to your attention some disturbing discrepancies in the University of Southern California’s written policy on student conduct and the University’s actual execution of adjudication in cases of misconduct.
Current undergraduate student Tucker Reed––who has blogged openly about her rape experience and her attempts to seek recourse––is one of several students whose reports of sexual misconduct are currently being reviewed by adjudicators associated with the office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards.
Prior to accepting the University’s offer of admission, all students are encouraged to review the University’s Student Conduct Code. This code is, in the most basic sense, a contract entered into between the University and its students. In relation to sexual misconduct, the code states:
The University of Southern California expects that all members of the university community … should be able to pursue their work and education in a safe environment, free from sexual coercion, violence and sexual intimidation. The university community is committed to fostering a safe campus environment where sexual misconduct and violence are unacceptable, and where survivors or those who believe they were harmed by another in violation of this policy are provided support and avenues of redress as appropriate. All members of the university community are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that does not infringe upon the rights of others. The University Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault Policy and Procedures have been developed to reaffirm these principles and to provide recourse for individuals whose rights have been violated. [Emphasis added.]
In sections 11.81 through 11.85 of the Student Conduct Code––sections which are specifically focused on discipline for sexual misconduct––the University outlines several sanctions that may be imposed on offending students. At the top of the list is the sanction of expulsion, followed by suspension and other lasting consequences. In subsection 11.93, however, the University undermines its stated goal of providing violated students with “recourse” and “redress” by setting forth an array of more lenient sanctions that can be applied at the adjudicators’ discretion. Such measures can be as meager as “counseling” and/or “community service work” and/or being assigned “research projects” and/or being made to attend “seminars, classes or other educational experiences deemed appropriate.”
It is extremely troubling that the University is not committed to removing rapists from the student body under all circumstances. These “other sanctions” defined in section 11.93 are at odds with the University’s promise to ensure “a safe campus environment where sexual misconduct and violence are unacceptable.”
Reed has met several times with Lindsey Goldstein and Raquel Torres-Retana, representatives for the office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards who were assigned to review her sexual assault allegations against a current undergraduate student. Torres-Retana is the head of the office. In response to Reed’s questions regarding sanctions that might be imposed on the student who confessed four times on tape to raping Reed, Torres-Retana stated that the University’s adjudication of sexual misconduct is not “a punitive process,” but is a rehabilitative or educational process meant to align with the goals of the academic institution.
The possibility that the University could entertain a rehabilitative approach towards a student who committed a felony against another student does not meet the University’s stated goal of providing “a safe environment.” While Torres-Retana did concede that the University will expel students who “pose a threat” to the student body, apparently the University does not place rapists within that category or description. We suggest that the University take a more definitive and unforgiving stance towards students who rape other students.
The University further vitiates its stated policy of intolerance for sexual violence by the manner in which it applies the “standard of proof” under which sexual misconduct cases are adjudicated. The code of conduct states:
The standard of proof for deciding against the accused student shall be such evidence that, when weighed against that opposed to it, has the more convincing force and the greater probability of truth.
However, the University undercuts its position with the following:
It is the responsibility of the finder of fact to render determinations concerning relevance of testimony and evidence to be presented as part of the review. Rules of evidence and discovery used by federal and state administrative proceedings shall not be applicable to reviews described in this code.
In effect, the relevance of evidence is subject to the discretion of the individual adjudicator, who is given the right, by the University, to admit or dismiss evidence that might not be admitted or dismissed in a court. Therefore, even though the initial “standard of proof” is comparable to what is required for findings in a civil lawsuit, the University’s additional discretionary language diminishes a reporting student’s ability to obtain a fair and unbiased ruling.
In Reed’s case, she has offered four recorded confessions of rape from her attacker (all of which are admissible under California Penal Code Section 633.5), together with testimony and writing that support her account of the rape. One might expect that the confessions in and of themselves should satisfy the “greater probability of truth” requirement, when weighed against her attacker’s (unsupported) claim that the penetrative sexual intercourse was consensual. However, Reed has been informed that her behaviors during the conclusion of her assault and after her assault––behaviors that fall well within the range of “normal” behavior by acquaintance rape victims––are being viewed as exculpatory evidence.
For example, the adjudicators characterize as “exculpatory” some of the evidence supplied by Reed that showed she reacted to the rape with denial and self-blame, even though more than seventy percent of acquaintance rape victims react in exactly the same way. The adjudicators likewise hold against Reed her acknowledged cooperation with the rapist during the rape’s final stages, despite the fact that Reed pleaded and struggled with her rapist at the outset, and despite the fact that acquaintance rape victims typically become passive and/or cooperative in order to make the horror of the assault conclude as quickly as possible.
The University promises students who report sexual misconduct that they can expect the “right to be free from any suggestion that a reporting student somehow contributed to or had a shared responsibility in the assault.” The code of conduct also states that students who have experienced a sexual assault have the right “not to be discouraged by university officials from reporting an assault to both on-campus and off-campus authorities.” In effect, no employee can actively discourage a student from seeking recourse. But when assault after assault is met with suspicion, criticism and dismissal, when evidence is actively interpreted to mitigate and alleviate culpability, and when blame is placed on the victim for behaviors well within the range of normal response, the University is effectively silencing rape victims by policy and practice.
The vast majority of rapes are committed against a woman by a man she knows. When these rape victims are met with ignorance and indifference to the violence and violation they have suffered, they are shamed into silence, condemned to suffering with no hope of “recourse” or “redress.” And the overwhelming failure of all authorities––academic and civil authorities alike––to help these victims perpetuates a culture in which predators can continue to rape with impunity.
The Student Conduct Code was last revised in April of 2012. We respectfully suggest that the code as it currently stands is insufficient to meet the University’s stated intent to foster “a safe campus environment where sexual misconduct and violence are unacceptable, and … provide recourse for individuals whose rights have been violated.” We sincerely hope that the University will recognize that at this time it is not protecting a large portion of its student body, and that its policies can and must be improved for the equal benefit of all members of the Trojan family.
And to every man and woman at USC who has been sexually assaulted by a fellow student, we urge you to join with us and “fight on” for the improvement of our conduct code.
The ladies of S.C.A.R.
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