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UB Reporter

Campus News

UB ahead of the curve with sexual harassment, assault policies

By SUE WUETCHER

Published December 12, 2013

“There really is a different profile on college campuses.”
Sharon Nolan-Weiss, director
Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Earlier this semester, SUNY entered into an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education to improve the response by SUNY and its state-operated campuses to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Many of the actions SUNY and its campuses are being required to take to ensure compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 are steps UB has been taking for a number of years, according to Sharon Nolan-Weiss, director of UB’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Title IX coordinator.

SUNY’s agreement with OCR is the result of a compliance review by OCR — “it’s basically an audit,” Nolan-Weiss explains — of policies and procedures governing sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints at SUNY’s 29 state-operated campuses. The agreement “really requires us to do things that may have been implicit in our procedures and policies, and make them more explicit,” she says, noting that institutions are being required to do more outreach to students, as well as faculty and staff.

UB’s outreach activities have included placing an ad in The Spectrum and sending an email via the student listserv asking members of the university community to suggest ways the sexual harassment and sexual assaults procedures and policies can be changed or improved. An article soliciting feedback also was published in the UB Reporter.

The university also is required as part of the agreement to conduct a review of the “campus climate” to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of its sexual harassment policies and procedures — Nolan-Weiss will consult with UB’s Personal Safety Committee to determine if the committee has any further recommendations — as well as conduct an annual review of its sexual harassment and sexual assault claims to identify and address any patterns or systemic problems.

Nolan-Weiss points out that she already had been conducting the annual review prior to the OCR agreement, working with university police to look at the kinds of cases that are occurring: “Are situations happening in certain physical locations? Is there a pattern we can address through education?”

UB also established a Discrimination and Harassment Policy in 2010 — the policy was updated in 2012 — outlining procedures by which the university will investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Nolan-Weiss notes that for many years, many colleges and universities — although not UB — considered sexual assault cases to be solely criminal matters to be handled by the courts, an approach that is not really appropriate for these kinds of cases.

“There really is a different profile on college campuses,” she says, noting that in these cases the victim and perpetrator frequently know each other, and may live in the same residence hall or attend class together. Alcohol is involved in many instances, she adds.

District attorneys often do not want to take on these kinds of cases — especially if alcohol is involved and it comes down to one person’s word against another’s — so these victims do not have a lot of recourse through the criminal justice system, she says. Yet, they must live in the same dorm as their attacker, or attend classes with him.

“This creates a situation where people would leave school rather than be in that environment,” she says of the victims.

That began to change in 2011, Nolan-Weiss explains, when OCR issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities that made it clear that schools could no longer take that approach and had to view cases of sexual assault and sexual violence as discrimination, and allow the victims recourse under discrimination policies. The letter also clarified the standard — making the standard a preponderance of the evidence, rather than the higher standard required in criminal cases. “Is it more likely or not that this assault occurred,” she says in explaining the new standard. “This is huge; you have situations where you’re hearing different stories and a lot of times there isn’t a lot of outside evidence.”

After receiving the “Dear Colleague” letter, Nolan-Weiss met with representatives from the Office of Judicial Affairs & Student Advocacy and University Police “to make sure we were doing everything that could be expected, that our policies complied and that we were using the right standards.”

The good news is that “we were doing a lot of things right,” she says, adding that her office fine-tuned and improved some things to improve communication and connections to other UB units.

The support of many UB units has helped the university get ahead of the curve when it comes to sexual harassment/sexual assault policies and procedures, she says, noting that there is no indication that the numbers of sexual assaults at UB are any greater than at any other school of comparable size.

“We have a terrific University Police Department,” she says, singling out Investigator Therese Banas in particular. “I can call her on a stalking issue and she will come and she will meet with people. She makes them feel comfortable,” as do all members of UPD, she says.

She also cites the Office of Judicial Affairs & Student Advocacy. “They are thoughtful, thorough. These are hard cases; a victim of sexual assault understandably does not want to relive it and face the person who assaulted her. And at the same time, you have another student who has rights, too,” including a right to due process, she says.

“It’s always a balance.”

Moreover, in some instances there’s a criminal investigation going on as well, and attorneys may be advising students not to cooperate with a campus investigation.

“It’s very complex; these are not easy issues,” Nolan-Weiss says. “You want to respect everybody’s rights and make sure there’s fairness there and also make the process not traumatizing to somebody who’s been a victim.”

She also praises the Student Wellness Team, including Counseling Services and Wellness Education Services and its violence prevention coordinator, Anna Sotelo-Peryea. The team has information for persons who experience sexual assault and runs a peer network of survivors of sexual assault, as well as other programming.

The work of these UB units “makes the Title IX compliance issue a lot easier because we already have this great support structure,” she says.

Nolan-Weiss encourages faculty and staff to continue to offer their feedback on how the effectiveness of campus policies and procedures that address sexual misconduct can be improved.

Suggestions and/or feedback can be shared by making an appointment with Nolan-Weiss at 645-2266, or sending an email to diversity@buffalo.edu.

Anonymous comments also may be provided through the EDI website.