Concerns about the way the University of Kansas handles sexual assault cases have been boiling over in recent weeks.
Reports of alleged sexual assaults garnering minor punishments have prompted protests and even a video produced by students telling others not to attend KU. Thursday night, university officials held a panel discussion where they answered questions, took suggestions and explained university policies surrounding sexual assault.
More than 100 people gathered for the discussion. Those who spoke expressed concerns about the process and suggested improvements.
Katherine Gwynn, a senior at KU, says this issue hasn’t just been on the minds of students in the last few weeks.
“I’ve been sitting on the Title IX committee that has had both administrators and students on it for the past year, almost, and we have said repeatedly that we would want to see the policy reviewed,” says Gwynn.
Gwynn says they didn’t get the policy review they wanted, but in just a short time the university had T-shirts made with a KU slogan about consent and made them available to students. Gwynn says that’s just window dressing.
“T-shirts can be PR material. T-shirts get you a press release. T-shirts can make you look like you're doing something instead of actually pushing forth administrative change,” says Gwynn.
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little says while improvements are needed, she believes KU’s policies compare favorably to many other institutions. She says she wants to harness the energy that’s been part of recent discussions on the topic.
“These are complex issues and the changes we need to make will require thoughtful conversation and reflection and cannot be achieved overnight. But we have a common goal," Gray-Little says. "We do not wish to be merely compliant with rules and regulations, rather we want to be a model of what can be done to address this problem."
Graduate student Rachel Schwaller took issue with the often-used term of “non-consensual sex.” She says if you rob someone, it’s not “non-consensual giving.” She says the university should just call it “rape.”
“Changing our language is incredibly important because language, while it communicates, it also hides. Calling something 'non-consensual sex' hides violence that’s implicit in the word 'rape,'” Schwaller says.
While the university investigates claims of sexual assault and can sanction students, it’s not a criminal process. Universities don’t have the power to adjudicate cases.
Jane McQueeny is with the office of Institutional Opportunity and Access, which investigates claims of sexual assault. She says they can’t compel people to testify and cross-examine witnesses. Those are some of the reasons they don’t use the term “rape.”
“So we can’t say that we’ve adjudicated a rape, because the same protections for both sides, for the accused and the complainant, aren’t in place, because it’s a civil process, it’s not a criminal process,” McQueeny says.
Chancellor Gray-Little says KU’s role is to try to ensure students have equal access to education.
“We don’t have a formal legal process here and that is not what we’re supposed to have. And that makes our role in this confusing and hard to communicate sometimes,” Gray-Little says.
Another audience member pointed to the school’s role of ensuring equal access to education. She said she wouldn’t be able to study if she had been raped and her rapist was still on campus. She argued for an automatic expulsion from the university if an investigation finds sexual assault.
Tammara Durham, vice provost for student affairs, says that’s difficult to apply to every situation.
“Each case is different, so to have, in effect, automatic sentencing, would put us in a difficult position,” says Durham.
Officials say there were 12 cases investigated last year at KU. In six of those cases, the person accused was eventually expelled.
After the meeting, grad student Rachel Schwaller said she believes the panel did have students’ best interests at heart, but she wasn’t satisfied with the discussion.
“And I don’t necessarily expect the see the types of change that students and faculty are wanting anytime soon,” Schwaller says. The idea of changing culture was part of the meeting.
It’s something Chancellor Gray-Little says the community needs to address as part of focusing on prevention.
“We certainly can improve our response to sexual assault and that’s what we've been talking about. But to me that’s the second or third best thing to do, because that means the assault has taken place,” says Gray-Little.
Gray-Little says suggestions for ways to deal with and curb sexual assault can be submitted to her office. She also has ordered that a task force be formed to study the issue. Meanwhile, a national investigation continues into the way more than 70 universities, including KU, handle cases of sexual assault.