GVSU should be cautious when reviewing sexual assault policies

By Lanthorn Editorial Board | 10/8/17 11:32pm

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This past month, the U.S. Department of Education announced a rollback and restructuring of Obama-era regulations for reporting and investigating sexual assaults on college campuses. While the guidelines are not yet set in stone for each university—there is still some leeway for what type of evidence will serve to convict an alleged offender at the individual university level—the overall push is to establish a greater degree of certainty when convicting or acquitting the accused party. 

In response to these changes, Grand Valley State University administration is cautiously reviewing its own policies and preparing to survey the university community for its opinion. 

Currently, GVSU utilizes the preponderance of the evidence standard to determine guilt—that is, the accused party is determined guilty if it is more than 50 percent likely that they are. DeVos' proposed changes would move this standard to the more robust clear and convincing evidence standard, which implies a greater degree of certainty before the conviction is made.

GVSU administration is wise for cautiously reviewing its policies and not jumping to any drastic changes before these regulations are officially settled at the national level. After all, with its current policy, GVSU has made significant strides in terms of encouraging victims to report sexual assaults. Changing the standard of evidence may make this number drop again, which would be detrimental to victims.

The university is also planning to reach out to the GVSU community to establish what students, faculty and staff think before they make any official changes. Although this decision positively reflects the administration's commitment to put its community members' interests first, the responses should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, students in particular have a lot at stake in how this policy is altered (if at all), and their answers will of course be colored by how they might be affected. 

To generalize broadly for the sake of example, female students will likely favor the preponderance of the evidence standard since it offers a lot of protection for alleged victims. Male students on the other hand, may prefer the clear and convincing evidence standard because it better protects accused perpetrators, of which the majority are men.

Consider how often the safety notices issued by the GVSU Police Department include generic perpetrator descriptions that could apply to a large portion of the male population at the university. One could argue that these generic descriptions put a lot of innocent men (particularly members of minority groups who are more likely to experience racial profiling) at risk or at least unease if they could easily be confused for a nondescript attacker.

On the flip side, as the current policy at GVSU has shown with a general upward trend of reported sexual assaults in the area, victims need to feel comfortable when reporting acts of sexual violence and need to be uninhibited by fear that their attacker will go free due to a lack of sufficient evidence and attempt to retaliate. GVSU's current policy effectively accounts for this, and changing it might drastically reduce the number of women who come forward about experiencing sexual violence and who ultimately receive justice.

How a university investigates and acts on reports of sexual assault is a serious issue and should not be taken lightly. GVSU administration is right to act cautiously and carefully when reviewing these policies.

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