In 2011, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights issued a letter to universities stating that sexual violence on college campuses could be more than just a criminal offense; it could be a violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions.
The extensive, 18-page letter was prompted by a large number of collegiate sexual assault cases coming through the Office of Civil Rights, an office within the U.S. Department of Education. Every year until 2011, the Office of Civil Rights saw a fairly consistent number of sexual assault cases annually, but when that number rose dramatically in 2011, the OCR decided that additional action must be taken.
The Office of Civil Rights mission is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights,” so when these cases began flooding in at a higher rate than ever, the OCR reached out to all schools receiving federal funding and challenged these institutions to meet a higher standard of proactive behavior when dealing with sexual assault cases or risk the loss of federal funds and a possible federal investigation.
The University received its letter in April of 2011 and began the process of drafting a revised sexual assault policy that would reflect the stricter federal policy in summer of 2012.
In order to create the best policy possible, Villanova’s legal office (the General Counsel’s office) drafted an initial policy which would be the building blocks of a longer, more precise document that a special committee would put forth. The General Council’s office therefore formed a working group of about eight people, including the director of residence life, the director of public safety, the dean of students, people involved in health promotion and Villanova’s associate vice president of student life, Kathy Byrnes.
People chosen for the committee revision were from offices connected and “involved with the educational piece of sexual assault as well as when a sexual assault is reported,” Byrnes said.
In addition to her work in Student Life, Byrnes is a Title IX deputy, meaning that she works with the school’s Title IX Coordinator, Ellen Krutz, to make sure that Villanova adheres to the law’s requirement.
Once titled the “Sexual Assault Policy,” the University’s new policy, the “Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy” (thus named because of a provision set forth by the OCR’s letter) is a far more extensive and specific policy.
As the name suggests, the University’s new policy covers much more than just sexual assault.
It defines a broader range of misconduct, including—but not limited to—harassment, assault, exploitation and most importantly, Byrnes said, it defines consent.
A term once not even defined, consent is one of the major focuses of the University’s new policy.
The writers of the policy dedicated about 3/4 of a page (Sect. II.B.), to defining consent. In the words of the writers, consent at the University is “an explicitly communicated, reversible mutual agreement in which all parties are capable of making a decision.”
The key phrase here is “explicitly communicated,” for the policy goes on to explain that though consent may be given through “affirmative behavior,” verbal communication is the clearest and most valued form of consent by the University’s standards, and anyone who is “incapacitated from alcohol or other drugs,” or otherwise not communicating unambiguously and explicitly cannot give consent.
The policy also makes the distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault, though it makes clear that the University takes both claims of sexual harassment claims and sexual assault very seriously.
The policy defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances”—i.e., any unwelcome behavior on a sexual level including sexual innuendo, unwelcome text messages or photos and unwelcome behavior by school authority figures).
Sexual assault is defined as “having or attempting to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact with another individual without consent,” meaning that both rape and any other kind of non-consensual sexual contact may be filed under a sexual assault claim.
In addition to these definitions, the revised sexual assault policy differs from the previous one in that it spells out exactly what resources are available to victims of sexual misconduct.
For example, the new policy gives a comprehensive explanation of exactly what happens after a sexual misconduct claim is made, exactly what is available to students involved and even goes so far as gives medical tips for victims to follow.
Though the University does not have an unusually high number of sexual assaults reported annually, the number has been steadily rising since 2010, and the school experienced its highest number of reported sexual offenses ever in 2012, as reflected by the annual crime report, suggesting that the new policy is timely.
Byrnes explained that sexual assault, which used to be an underreported crime, is now coming to light more frequently. It is difficult to know if the University is seeing an actual increase in sexual assault or if its people are simply becoming more proactive and vocal.
“[Villanova] wanted to make one policy which made it clear to the whole community that we must all be on the same page,” Byrnes said. “Everyone needs to understand that we have a standard to uphold here.”