Student Life Column

With a sexual assault investigation underway, Syracuse University needs to step up its procedure awareness

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will hold its final community meeting at Syracuse University on Wednesday. The meetings — an obscure series of what are essentially office hours — are the result of the OCR’s pending Title IX investigation into an incident of sexual assault at SU, which was launched June 22.

Though they have been transparent with the university’s processing of the OCR investigation, SU officials could do more to help students understand these meetings. Why go? What do they do there? At first glance, students may think these meetings are for testimonials to sexual assault culture at SU, but that’s not the case.

“They aren’t looking for a narrative,” said Samantha Skaller, SU senior and Northeast regional leader for the “It’s On Us” campaign, a national promotion program against sexual violence.

The meetings, Skaller added, focus on the procedures of individual cases filed with the university. And, in previous emails to students, the university has phrased the meetings as OCR’s assessment of its “processes for handling of complaints of sexual violence or harassment.”

The university has given a concerted effort for this brand of commentary through its climate assessment project. Here, in a sprawling 470-page document, students acknowledged their familiarity with the university’s processes and policies regarding sexual and relationship violence.

Of the 3,601 student respondents to this section of the survey, 60.6 percent noted they either agreed or strongly agreed with understanding the university’s policies. This remains miniscule, though, in comparison to the campus community at large, which may be unaware of how the process works, and where faults may lie.

The university has done a significant job with transparency, but advocacy for procedural improvement is another matter. Being dissatisfied with the processing of a suit means acknowledging wrongdoings after the fact. Students looking to know and be preemptive about their case are met with a brazen “we’ll do better next time” response.

In comparison to other institutions of higher education, SU has made strides in public relations. Emma Hyndman, the leader of the Violence Prevention Program at Santa Clara University, said school officials there “didn’t tell us we were even on the list.” That list is some 300 or more institutions currently under investigation by the OCR.

Even Hyndman, a campus leader at her university, “didn’t think it would matter,” to go to the meetings. After all, if you haven’t gone through an institution’s process, how can you begin to articulate how to correct it?

The Task Force on Sexual and Relationship Violence at Syracuse has done something of a botched job portraying the need for students to attend these meetings, and more broadly understand the intricacies of filing a complaint. The task force is a “publicity stunt,” Skaller said, and with students unaware of the holes of procedurals, it provides little to how or why members of the community should go to make the equivocal process better.

If found to have violated the Department of Education’s Title IX procedures, the university faces DOE reparations to revise its current policies. So if improvement on current filing processes is SU’s end goal with the OCR meetings — which the community hopes it would be — work needs to be done on how to foresee issues in the filing process.

Students, faculty and staff should absolutely seek out information on how to improve the filing processes. But the university should also make information about where to appropriately fix the system clear and more available.

A potential slap on the wrist after malpractice cannot replace a necessary step toward improvement in the system.

Brendan Germain is a senior television, radio and film major and French minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bngermai@syr.edu.

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