Hearing procedures to change as reports of sexual assault rise

Increase thought to indicate a larger fraction of assaults are being reported

A year after MIT released the results from its first community sexual assault survey, the Institute has implemented many of its accompanying recommendations and has begun launching new initiatives.

The Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault (CASA) survey, spearheaded by Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and geared toward understanding how sexual assault affects the MIT community, showed that 17 percent of female undergraduate respondents had experienced behaviors defined as sexual assault at MIT. However, only 5 percent of sexually assaulted students said that they had reported their experience to the Institute.

Since the survey was launched in April of 2014, it appears that a greater number of cases have been reported to the Title IX Office, which handles gender discrimination and sexual misconduct cases, and to Violence Prevention & Response (VPR), an on-campus resource which helps prevent and respond to sexual assaults, among other issues.

The Title IX Office reported a 29 percent increase (69 to 89) in cases from academic years 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, while VPR saw a 53 percent increase (75 to 115) in cases during the same time frame. These figures include any encounters with these offices, and not only those related to sexual assault.

According to the 2015 MIT Police Annual Report, 14 on-campus rapes were reported to the MIT Police in 2014, up from 10 in 2013 and 7 in 2012.

“One clear sign that our focus on education is having an impact is that we are seeing more students than in previous years coming forward to report unwanted sexual behavior,” Barnhart told the MIT news office. “We think the increase likely indicates increased awareness about what constitutes misconduct, and better knowledge about where to go for help. We also think more students now understand they have access to resources where they can share personal, sensitive information and get the support they need.”

Changes at the Committee on Discipline

The Committee on Discipline adjudicates complaints against students and student organizations and has the power to suspend or expel students based on hearings. Seventeen members, composed of a mix of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff, sit on the committee. While these complaints include cases of sexual misconduct, relatively few of the students who talk to the Title IX Office or VPR choose to ultimately go through the COD process.

In an interview with The Tech, Director of Student Citizenship Kevin Kraft noted that he recognizes this as an issue. To help mitigate this overall reluctance to report, Kraft has led efforts to streamline the COD process and make it easier for students to report and go through a sexual misconduct case. By the end of this month, the COD will be implementing an entirely new process for how it will handle sexual misconduct cases.

“In the old process, what you would have to do is sort of prepare your whole case yourself and present your whole case yourself,” Kraft said. “Now, with the addition of the Title IX Office and Title IX investigators, we’ve professionalized that so that instead of kind of coming to this adversarial meeting, where your complainant says one side of the story, and the respondent says another side of the story, we’ve had the case professionally investigated already in a much lower-stress environment.”

Students who submit sexual misconduct complaints will have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a Title IX investigator who then will help the student parse out the important details in the case.

Another important change will be the decrease in time it takes to go from the initial complaint through the investigation to the final resolution.

“In the old process, you’d have to get 10 business days to write your statement and you’d have to get 5 business days before the hearing and all these things that made it take a very long time,” Kraft said. “But because this is all an interactive process during the investigation — you’re seeing evidence as it’s coming in, you’re having opportunities to comment on what the other person is saying, and that sort of thing — we’ve been able to streamline a lot of that and that’s been helpful.”

A final important improvement is the decrease in intimidation that sexual misconduct complainants will experience during the actual process itself.

If the two parties do not dispute the Title IX investigator’s report recommendation, then the complainant will not need to come before the COD at all. If a dispute arises, however, the complainant will come before a panel. Instead of placing seven members of the COD on the panel, however, only three will be there in the new process. These three members will have received extensive and specialized training in how to handle sexual misconduct cases.

For the academic year 2015-2016, a special subcommittee of six has been formed to receive this training. These are: Prof. Suzanne Flynn, Prof. Halston Taylor, Prof. Andrew Whittle PhD ’87, Blanche Staton, Julie Rothhaar-Sanders, and Brian Canavan. Any hearing panel will be composed of three of these members, with at least one faculty member and one staff member. No students will be on the sexual misconduct subcommittee.

“This is something that requires a lot of specialization and a lot of expertise,” Kraft said. “We don’t want just any person, any random faculty, student, or staff member getting on these committees and making whatever decision.”

In addition, unlike in the old process, the complainant and the respondent will be kept in separate rooms and allowed to communicate through technology and video feeds.

According to the most recent COD Annual Report to the Chair of the Faculty and President of the Institute, the number of COD sexual misconduct cases increased from four to nine between the academic years of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. However, there was a decrease in the number of expulsions (1 to 0) and suspensions/degree deferrals (7 to 5) within the same time frame.

Peer-to-peer programs

Last November, MIT’s student-run “It’s On Us” campaign kicked off. MIT’s chapter is part of a national initiative to promote sexual assault awareness on college campuses. This fall, a new program for undergraduates called Pleasure (Peers Leading Education About Sexuality & Speaking Up for Relationship Empowerment), and a peer ambassador program for the graduate student community have launched.

According to Kate McCarthy, program director of VPR, Pleasure was created in response to comments that students submitted as part of the CASA survey.

“Students said over and over again they needed to learn foundational skills in order to have healthy, consensual sexual encounters,” McCarthy said. “The Chancellor recognized the importance of this input and added staffing to Violence Prevention & Response (VPR) to support the creation and implementation of a peer education program.”

Vienna Rothberg currently heads VPR’s Pleasure program. Rothberg started recruiting in the spring shortly after being hired, forming a group of undergraduate and graduate students to serve on an advisory board. Since then, eleven students have been trained as peer educators. Pleasure launched in Random Hall this month.

Lucia Lam ’17, one of the peer educators, said she joined Pleasure over the summer on a whim, and decided to stay because she realized it was a topic she cared about. Pleasure consists of a series of student seminars with activities ranging from discussion to role-playing.

“We want to normalize discussions about sex and relationships so that people don’t find these conversations awkward or giggle-worthy, and to encourage people to have these conversations with each other,” she told The Tech. “We want people to have fun in their relationships, whatever form they may be, and to respect each other and be happy.”

Attendance is an issue, but she adds that “the feedback has been fairly positive from those who have shown up, and people seem excited for the next set of presentations that we’ll be doing in November.”

To help target the graduate community, VPR has created a peer ambassador program that is expected to launch in November in Eastgate and Westgate, MIT’s two graduate student family residences. Program head Amanda Hankins formed an advisory board over the summer and has been working with the executive teams at Eastgate and Westgate along with a few of the graduate courses to launch the peer ambassador program.

Peer ambassadors will include graduate students as well as spouses and partners. The program is partially supported by a $10,000 grant from the Avon Foundation. According to McCarthy, there will be a display posted on ambassadors’ doors or labs that demonstrates that they’re a person someone can talk to.

“What we know about peer-to-peer programming is that it’s really well-received, not only for the people who are receiving it, but really a lot for the peers as well,” said McCarthy. “It really helps them sort of grow and become leaders in a topic that maybe they weren’t before they started. We’re really excited to see what happens.”

Barnhart added: “It’s a fantastic way to expand our reach. Of course, we have a limited budget. We can’t hire as many people as we would love to. By tapping into the students, it really amplifies the voice.”

Presidential Committee on Sexual Misconduct

According to Barnhart, a presidential committee on sexual misconduct will be formed by the end of this month, taking the place of the Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force. This initiative comes from a recommendation made by McCarthy and Sarah Rankin, Institute Title IX Coordinator, on behalf of the task force earlier this year. According to the Chancellor’s Office, the standing committee is expected to “spearhead and assess [MIT’s] responses to sexual assault for the long-term.”

Prof. David Singer was appointed chair of the committee earlier this month. The ultimate makeup of the committee will include students, staff, and other faculty members.

“The idea is that this committee will be responsible for ensuring that we act, and kind of take that roadmap and deliver on it, and also further assess what’s happening, develop new strategies of things we should be trying,” Barnhart said.

Next steps

Barnhart expects that a follow-up survey will be sent out in the 2016-2017 academic year. For this survey, she said that questions will be added or changed to better pinpoint where sexual assaults tend to occur on campus, something that was notably missing from the first CASA survey.

Over four-fifths of the undergraduate respondents to the CASA survey who had experienced unwanted sexual behavior said it had occurred “on campus,” but this term was very loosely defined and included dormitories as well as fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. In terms of where the attacks occurred among the living groups themselves, the survey made no distinction.

“If we a have concern that there’s a particular community, be it a fraternity or another living community or a club or a group or whatever it is, then part of what the Title IX Office is trying to do is look at the holistic picture of MIT and figure out where are these areas where we have an opportunity to go in and do some prevention and education,” Rankin said. “We have done that a number of times.”

“Maybe the most powerful impact we can have is by tapping into the resources that are our students,” Barnhart said. “We know from experience that students definitely rely on each other and learn from each other and so we’re using that dynamic of our community to strengthen our impact, our educational impact.”

Charlie Andrews over 7 years ago

Overall I found this a well-written and informative article. However, I noticed a small but important error in the second paragraph. The article says, "17 percent of female undergraduate respondents had experienced behaviors defined as sexual assault at MIT" but this is not actually what the CASA survey report said. The 17 figure is how many female undergraduate respondents experienced sexual assault involving force, threats, or incapacitation. MIT defines sexual assault as "physical contact of a sexual nature without a person's effective consent," which is broader than the category described by the number given.

Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that "at least 17" experienced sexual assault as defined by MIT. I'd appreciate if, in the future, caution could be exercised to avoid misrepresenting the CASA survey results in a way that underemphasizes the prevalence of sexual violence at MIT.

Charlie Andrews over 7 years ago

Apparently the comment field doesn't accept the percent character. Everywhere it says "17" in comment 1, I meant "17 percent."