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Letter calls IU to respond to changes in sexual assault guidance



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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos listens as President Trump speaks during a strategic and policy discussion with CEOs April 11 in Washington, D.C. After the Department of Education announced changes to sexual misconduct guidance, a group of more than 40 students and alumni signed a letter to IU President Michael McRobbie, asking the University “stand with survivors and show the country that this university cares about its students.” Photo courtesy of Tribune News Service Buy Photos

A week after the U.S. Department of Education announced changes to sexual misconduct guidance, one group is calling on IU to stand in firm support of survivors of sexual assault.

The group of more than 40 students and alumni — some from IU and some from other universities — signed a letter to IU President Michael McRobbie, asking the University “stand with survivors and show the country that this university cares about its students.”

IU alumna Samantha McCoy led others in signing the letter, which she posted online Wednesday to her public Facebook account and Thursday via the self-publishing platform Medium.

McCoy, who reported sexual assault to IU last year, said she decided to draft the letter after seeing a national campaign encouraging students to contact their university presidents. She then reached out to other survivors and advocates she’s kept in contact with and invited them to sign and edit the letter in a Google Doc.

With U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos taking a strong public stance that university sexual misconduct investigations have failed students, survivors of sexual violence across the country have been left confused about what federal changes could mean when students seek to report to their own universities. 

McCoy said she emailed her letter directly to McRobbie with hopes the IU president will publicly reaffirm the University’s dedication to its current sexual misconduct policies and Obama-era federal guidance. 

McCoy has reached out to national survivor advocacy organizations, including End Rape on Campus for additional support, and said she is still collecting signatures.

“Every survivor no matter where we are, we all have to stick together,” said Paige McDonald, a survivor from Rochester, New York, who signed the letter. “A bunch of voices together is very powerful. It’s a sisterhood that you never wanted to join.”

The letter, in more than 750 words, expresses fear that changing federal guidance could discourage students from reporting sexual assault to their universities.

“Schools should stand by their policies,” the letter reads, “which will help survivors feel comfortable continuing to report to the school.”

Some said they signed the letter to seek assurance that survivors will continue to receive support and resources from IU. Others said they were motivated by recent events on the IU-Bloomington campus, like the discovery of several fake It’s On Us campaign posters found in University bathrooms mocking the University’s definition of consent and slut-shaming women who have decided to report sexual assault.

“President McRobbie, he’s in a position of leadership,” said IU alumna Olivia Basu, who signed the letter in support of McCoy. “He has the duty to let his community know this is not OK.”

Changing guidance

The change in federal guidance came Sept. 22, after DeVos announced a week earlier the Department of Education would open a public notice and comment period to gather community input on how schools can better handle reports of sexual assault.

In the Sept. 22 announcement, the Department of Education withdrew two key pieces of Obama-era sexual violence guidance — a 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and a 2014 Question and Answer document — and replaced them with a new letter of guidance for schools to consider as the department moves forward with its notice and comment period.

Different from prior guidance, the newly released Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct suggests no specific time frame is needed for university investigations and that schools may choose to use a stricter standard of proof when deciding cases and placing sanctions. 

Local attorneys who have represented men accused of sexual assault at IU say adopting these changes would be an improvement in providing fairness to both students involved in university sexual misconduct cases.

Yet some, like McCoy, believe such changes would be unfair to survivors. The current standard of proof used by schools like IU, they say, ensures students who report sexual assault have a better opportunity to seek justice in cases that are difficult to pursue in the criminal justice system. A definite time frame for investigation, they add, prevents school investigations from being drawn out for years.

“The danger in that is survivors aren’t going to get justice,” McDonald said.

The letter claims although many have expressed deep concerns for how IU investigates sexual assault, as evidenced in a recent Indiana Daily Student series, others have found “solace, compassion and justice” in IU’s system.

McCoy, who suggested IU could have handled some aspects of her University investigation better, is still a strong advocate for schools’ involvement in responding to reports of sexual assault.

While new guidance from the Department of Education doesn’t suggest universities should stop responding to these cases, some believe only police should investigate allegations of crimes of such a serious nature. McCoy, however, says schools need to be involved.

Universities can offer services police departments can’t. The police can’t help students navigate missed classes and homework assignments during a sexual assault investigation, McCoy says. The police can’t change class schedules or residence hall assignments to create distance between students. All are services available at IU.

“If you’re assaulted at your university it should be their responsibility to make sure you’re protected,” she said.

Seeking a response

Shortly after the Department of Education announced its withdrawal of the Obama-era guidance, IU released a statement saying the University remains unwavering in its commitment to ending sexual violence and that IU will continue its investigations of sexual assault in a way that assures “fairness and dignity to all participants.”

“The September 22nd announcement by the Department of Education makes it clear that it remains the responsibility of the University to respond to any matters of possible sexual misconduct,” the IU statement read. “All of the University’s prevention and response efforts will continue with the same level of focus, vigor and intensity.”

Ryan Piurek, a University spokesperson, confirmed the Office of the President received McCoy’s letter late Thursday night and that IU stands by its previous statement.

McCoy said McRobbie has yet to respond to her directly, and that the University’s current statement is promising but too vague. 

Will IU still use the same standard of proof, she asked. Will investigators still attempt to respond to reports within the previously recommended 60-day time frame? Or will they heed proposals in the new federal guidance and change how they investigate cases of sexual assault?

McCoy said she hopes McRobbie himself can respond and clarify IU’s stance on specific policy points.

“I would love to see him outwardly state ‘I am against what Betsy DeVos has said,’” McCoy said. “‘And we are going to uphold the standards of the Dear Colleague Letter that we were upholding and work on improving things that were issues in the past.’”

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