University policies on sexual assault and acts of violence were updated last week to feature broadened definitions of sexual assault crimes and reflect new laws about how those crimes are reported.
These changes include a more detailed definition of consent and new guidelines on how sexual assault accusations and records should be marked on transcripts. Experts on campus sexual assault said it is important for these policies to be constantly updated because the documents are resources for survivors of violence.
The definition of consent in the Threats and Acts of Violence Policy was broadened to explain that an individual’s voluntary words or actions do not necessarily mean that future sexual activity is consensual.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the definition of consent was revised with guidance from the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, according to University obligations under Title IX.
And a new section was added to that policy to demonstrate GW’s adherence to a new Virginia law, which requires higher education institutions to mark a student’s transcript if that student was found guilty of a sexual violence crime.
Officials also added more subheads and contact information to the Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Policy and Procedures to better organize it.
“Since this policy includes a lot of information, organizing by topic area or subhead makes the information easier to read,” Csellar said.
Csellar said the University reviews both policies annually and revises them when appropriate. They were tweaked this year to reflect the University’s adherence to applicable laws, she said.
The new versions of the policies were approved by Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, Provost Forrest Maltzman and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Beth Nolan.
Information about these policies is included in the mandatory in-person training on Title IX rights and responsibilities for new students, Csellar added.
Changes in Virginia law
A new Virginia law that came into effect Oct. 1 requires educational institutions to place notations on the transcripts of students who are taking or have taken courses in Virginia, who are suspended or expelled for sexual assault or who withdrew while under investigation for an offense involving sexual assault.
The new Virginia law included in the updated policy requires a university’s review committee to notify state law enforcement in cases of felony sexual violence involving Virginia students. The information disclosed may also include personally identifiable information of the accused to protect the health and safety of a student or others.
Csellar said officials updated the policies to adhere to those laws because GW has academic campuses in Virginia, like the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.
Jill Filipovic, an attorney and author, said most colleges throughout the country don’t make those kinds of notations on transcripts. But colleges should annotate those documents because universities need to know if transfer applicants could pose a threat to other students, she said.
“If a student has been found responsible for sexually attacking another student, that should absolutely be noted on their transcript so that they can’t simply start at a new college like nothing happened,” Filipovic said.
JoAnn Buttaro, an activist and member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau and the University of California, Irvine Speakers Bureau, said the new Virginia law is not common but does set a strong standard that when a convicted student has gone through due process and found guilty, that information should be known.
“My reasoning is in the past the accused had moved on without consequence while the victim suffered,” Buttaro said. “It should also be noted in case the accused goes on to another institution and assaults again.”
Expanded definition of consent
The updated version of the acts of violence policy says that consent “cannot be inferred from the absence of a ‘no’ and can be withdrawn at any time,” and consent to one form of sexual activity does not automatically imply consent to any other sexual act. It now also states that previous relationships or prior consent do not imply consent in the future.
This change in the definition of consent has been taking place at colleges across the country, where a “yes means yes” version of consent has won favor with sexual assault activists and students.
Gavin Coble, the director of policy and outreach for Students Against Sexual Assault, said SASA was pleased with this addition to the policy. The group is pleased that the University is making an effort to provide survivors with additional support, he added.
“It gets away from the ‘no means no’ policy, which was the original policy awhile ago,” Coble said. “What’s trying to be pushed now is the ‘yes means yes’ policy, which this new definition seems to jump into.”
SASA members were vocal about adding mandatory sexual assault prevention education for incoming students two years ago, which was key to winning administrators’ support. Officials also created the Committee on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in October 2014 at the same time that they named a new Title IX coordinator, but no public reports will be released from the committee.
Shan Wu, a former Department of Justice sex crimes prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney specializing in student legal issues including sexual assault, said modern definitions of consent eliminate the idea that sexual assault can only occur through violence. Incapacity of the survivor, like being under the influence of drugs at the time of an attack, has been recognized in criminal law for years as constituting “a per se lack of consent,” he said.
“For example, minors are deemed incapable of giving consent to sexual activity and thus any sexual acts with minors are deemed to be without consent,” Wu said. “In campus sexual assaults, incapacity due to alcohol intoxication is often at issue.”
The importance of updates
Wu said regular updates to universities’ sexual assault policies are important because the White House Task Force and the Department of Education have issued various statements and guidance on definitions and procedures.
A 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education called for policies on sexual assault to be more clear about the rights of the accused and survivors, leading to changes in GW’s policies in 2013 that included removing the time constraint to formally file a sexual harassment or assault complaint.
“Universities will want to be in compliance with the latest guidance,” Wu said. “Policies should be made easily available to students online, and students should be directed to these online resources from a variety of campus sources.”
Buttaro, the RAINN Speakers Bureau member, said officials must regularly update universities’ sexual assault policies because of the changing narrative around campus sexual violence.
Institutions should be updating policies every semester, so when students are accessing the school’s policy on sexual assault, they know they are using up-to-date resources, she said.
“Universities should put out new policy information each semester because of the new crop of incoming students,” Buttaro said. “This would force the school to keep the details fresh and up-to-date, and the students know the school is making the effort to provide the latest information.”