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Justin Peligri: Words matter in sexual assault policy

Hatchet File Photo
Hatchet File Photo

Words matter.

And they are especially important when etched into University policy that affects the safety and security of thousands of students, professors and staffers. An 8,000-word sexual assault policy is the most recent string of words that holds this kind of influence.

And in a Faculty Senate meeting Friday, professors scrutinized its wording, unfairly calling into question the validity of sexual assault crimes on campus. Some asked GW policymakers to insert language putting a heavier burden of proof on victims – a rigid set of potentially irrelevant standards that could confuse the situation and deter some people from taking legal action.

Ted Barnhill, a finance professor and a member of the senate’s professional ethics and academic freedom committee, questioned the absence of concrete definitions for three specific words in the policy: “preponderance of evidence.”

The phrase refers to having enough clear evidence to prosecute an individual in a sexual assault case.

Those words – commonly used legal terminology in other University disciplinary policies – have existed in the sexual assault guidelines since their creation in 1999. But they aren’t defined in specific terms because administrators shot down the idea – and for good reason. By adding definitions, the University would have created harmful and inhibiting black-and-white standards in scenarios overwhelmed with gray areas. Not every sexual assault case is the same, and neither is each case’s evidence.

Barnhill explained his concern over the lack of this language in an open letter to the Faculty Senate. “A troubling point is that the University administration has repeatedly and explicitly rejected the proposition that substantial evidence of wrongdoing is necessary before faculty, staff or students may be separated from the University,” he wrote.

Now, here’s the problem: That’s not true.

The goal of sexual assault trials – the procedures of which are duly outlined in the policy – is to do just what Barnhill calls for: establish the evidence. It’s simply incorrect to assume that the University will expel students or fire faculty without sufficient grounds to do so.

Just like any other breach of the law – even University law – panels and administrators must accumulate evidence before they determine any life-changing verdicts. To insist on a definition for good enough evidence for sexual assault cases suggests that these violent crimes are different than any others.

What kind of message does that send to the hundreds of victims on our campus?

Community members who doubt the policy’s effectiveness should look at it this way: We all know that murders and robberies happen late at night. They sometimes happen when people are under the influence of alcohol. Oftentimes, conclusive evidence exists, but is difficult to ascertain.

The same is true for sexual assault. Discovering the details about a crime isn’t always easy – in fact, it rarely is. And trials exist so that both parties can present their evidence and express their points of view.

But any attempt to streamline the trial process by standardizing what constitutes adequate evidence wouldn’t respect the complexity of these cases.

Student Association Executive Vice President Kostas Skordalos – who ran on a platform of enhancing sexual assault awareness – told me it was “troubling” that this concern was raised by the faculty senate.

“You’re automatically assuming the information from the victim is false,” he explained.

When I spoke to Professor Barnhill, he said that sexual assault is a serious concern and those allegations should be aggressively investigated. And he’s right about that. Sexual assault is assault. It’s a violent crime.

After some debate, the sexual assault policy was eventually approved in the Faculty Senate meeting, and is on its way to the Board of Trustees later this month. The policy certainly has its flaws: Many words are missing, and many are just plain offensive. The two-year statute of limitations is disturbingly restrictive, and the existence of an exception for “good cause” needs more explaining.

But when it comes to “preponderance of evidence,” it is good to leave definitions of those words up to those taking part in a trial.

Because words matter. And as a University community, it is our responsibility to look critically at the words we immortalize in campus policy.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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