UMD revises policy for sexual misconduct investigations as federal regulations take effect
The Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct is located on the third floor of Susquehanna Hall. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)
The University of Maryland released new policy and procedures for investigating sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct Friday, outlining an updated process that involves cross-examination of all parties and witnesses involved in a case.
The revised university policy comes the same day as new, widely criticized federal Title IX regulations go into effect. These regulations have drawn condemnation from students and administrators alike, who worry the cross-examination process could be traumatizing for survivors.
“It’s going to be so much harder for people to get through this process and for people to want to go through this process,” said Elena LeVan, the SGA’s former director of sexual misconduct prevention.
The new federal regulations, which were released in May, require all colleges to hold live hearings when investigating sexual misconduct and allow for the cross-examination of both parties. Last month, Grace Karmiol, the university’s Title IX Coordinator and director of the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, told The Diamondback that the new requirements might discourage some students from pursuing formal investigations.
But in an interview Friday, Karmiol said there may not be a chilling effect on complainants, adding, “we’ll have to see what happens.”
Under the university’s revised policies, all parties involved in a hearing are allowed an adviser, which the university will provide if requested. This adviser can cross-examine the opposite party and any witnesses, and “all relevant questions and follow-up questions, including those challenging the credibility of Parties and witnesses,” will be allowed, according to the updated policy.
Relevancy of a question is determined before it is answered, and several questions, such as those concerning a party’s sexual history, are often considered irrelevant.
In a statement, Karmiol wrote that, though she disagrees with some of the provisions required by federal law, she thinks the revised policy goes “above and beyond the regulations to reflect the core mission and values of the university.”
For example, under the federal regulations, the university is only obligated to handle cases that occur in its own programs and activities, including in Greek life houses. But this university expanded the jurisdiction to students who face misconduct off-campus and outside the U.S.
“We don’t think that [a student] who’s been sexually assaulted in off-campus housing should be treated any differently — a perpetrator should be treated any differently — than if the same conduct happened on campus,” Karmiol said.
The university’s policy also covers sexual exploitation, coercion and intimidation — violations the federal regulations do not.
The hearings can also be conducted virtually, which rising senior Lizzie Mafrici said could help lessen the impact of cross-examinations.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from COVID-19 it’s that being behind a screen is not the same thing as being in person,” said Mafrici, who is the president of the campus group Preventing Sexual Assault. “If there’s a barrier between [the parties], even if that is a computer screen, I think that that will hopefully help a little bit.”
But there are still community concerns. The Department of Education gave colleges discretion on how long of a time frame they set to finish a case, and the university’s listed time frame is 120 days.
“That means that if you report on the first day of the fall semester, you’re not gonna get your case resolved until, probably, end of February,” said LeVan, who also chaired the Title IX Advisory Board.
In general, LeVan worries that student input has been reduced in sexual misconduct proceedings. In the past, students could be a part of a five-person panel — called the Standing Review Committee — to oversee cases that could result in expulsion or suspension.
On Thursday, however, members of the committee were notified that, with the exception of one more case that will likely be heard in September, the body will no longer hear cases or appeals.
Instead, moving forward, individuals with “legal backgrounds and expertise in Title IX” will oversee the hearings, Karmiol said.
But LeVan said she doesn’t think the SRC needed to be dismantled. There are ways the university could have ensured that the panels have the requisite legal background while still including faculty, staff and students in the proceedings, she said. For example, it could’ve required that the chair of each panel of the SRC have that background.
“The Title IX Office is very good at saying, ‘Hey, we want to hear your thoughts, we want to hear your opinions,’” LeVan said. “And then, disregarding every single thought and opinion that a student brings to them.”
The university will still try to involve SRC members, Karmiol said, including through inviting them to serve as advisers to complainants. Students on the Student Conduct Committee can also hear appeals cases, and OCRSM continues to listen to concerns from students on the Title IX Advisory Board, Karmiol wrote in a statement.
In an email to the campus community Friday, university President Darryll Pines and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Georgina Dodge wrote that the University Senate will also conduct a review of the new policy — which a group of faculty, staff and students helped create this summer — and submit recommendations to clarify its language.
Mafrici said Preventing Sexual Assault is hoping to push the Senate to adjust some of the policy’s language, including making it clearer that the university has jurisdiction over incidents at Greek life satellite and chapter houses.
“The number one complaint with the national regulations was that they were vague and confusing, and a lot of the UMD regulations are vague and confusing, which is upsetting,” said Mafrici, a public policy and women’s studies major.
In the email, Pines and Dodge noted several key provisions within the new policy continue to protect the rights of students who report sexual misconduct — the revisions did not change what type of conduct constitutes a violation, for example.
But Pines and Dodge stressed they were worried about the implications of some of the changes.
“We had significant concerns about how these regulations would impact our campus community and sexual assault survivors when they were proposed over a year ago,” they wrote. “The University of Maryland will continue to provide support services and resources that extend beyond what is required by federal regulations.”
This story has been updated.