Equal Rights for the Wronged: University of Chicago students petition for a fairer sexual abuse policy

As I sit across from Aliza Levine and listen to her story, she brushes her bangs out of her eyes, resolved to put them back in place. She repeats this gesture maybe fifteen times during the interview. She may not even be aware of it, but this simple motion illustrates something about her: her persistence. She is calm and polite, but tenaciously determined to see change.

Levine is the 21-year-old co-founder of the Working Group on Sexual Assault Policy, which has pressed the University of Chicago administration to reevaluate and make crucial changes to its sexual assault policy since the spring of 2008. It has collected over 500 student signatures and the endorsement of 20 student groups, including a recent resolution by the Student Government Association on Jan. 22.

An alleged sexual assault incident sparked student activism. It occurred in spring 2007, and a disciplinary hearing followed in summer 2007. The accuser was a female University of Chicago alumnus, and the accused was a male University of Chicago student at the time. Because of privacy regulations, the Working Group has never known their names.

The Working Group formed the following spring, after learning about the incident from Sexual Assault Deans-on-Call, Levine said. The Deans-on-Call argued that the current policy leaves the accuser vulnerable to further trauma during the hearing process and potentially discourages other survivors from reporting incidents of sexual violence, according to Dean-on-Call and Director of Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention Vickie Sides.

After filing a Freedom of Information Act with the United States Department of Education, the Working Group obtained particulars about the incident. They studied the documents, including a complaint filed by the female accuser with the Department of Education. The accuser claimed that the University’s hearing process violated Title IX, which mandates equitable disciplinary procedures for cases of sexual assault, according to a fact sheet based on the FOIA file and created by the Working Group.

It took four months for the hearing to commence. The accuser “was badgered by committee members and accused of ‘asking for it’ by getting into a cab with the alleged rapist,” according to the Working Group’s fact sheet. She also had no access to the accused’s testimony, while he had access to hers. In a final disappointment, the accuser had no right to appeal the decision because the current disciplinary policy only gives that privilege to the accused.

According to the Working Group’s fact sheet, the accuser’s lawyers argued that “her experience was sufficiently traumatic that it could discourage other students from pursuing justice within the university community.” In the end, the University’s lawyers got the case dropped because the woman was an alumnus, not a current student, even though the University had previously agreed to hear her case despite her alumni status.

Based on its analysis of the 2007 hearing, the Working Group advocates the centralization of sexual assault disciplinary procedures under the Office of the Vice-President and Dean of Students, increased timeliness of proceedings, and specialized sensitivity training for all committee members. It also recommends that committees be composed of members from neither the accused nor the accuser’s academic departments. Finally, it calls for equitable rights for the accuser and the accused, including the right to ask for an appeal and guaranteed access to testimony.

Last spring, members of the Working Group, including Levine, met with Martina Munsters, Deputy Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs. Munsters listened to student concerns about deficiencies in the sexual assault policy, but the meeting was ineffective, failing to motivate change or even a review of the policy. It remains unclear why the University took no action.

Another meeting took place on Friday, January 30, between four members of the Working Group, Student Government President Matt Kennedy, and Munsters. This time the Working Group went armed with their petition, the Student Government resolution, a fact sheet on the 2007 hearing, and a comparison of the University’s sexual assault policy to those at twenty-seven peer institutions.

“We came out of the meeting feeling like it went really well,” said one Working Group leader, first-year graduate student Ursula Wagner. Wagner, 28, praised Munsters for acknowledging that the current policy allowed a negative situation to result from the 2007 hearing and for pledging to communicate concerns with the sexual assault policy to Kim Goff-Crews, Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students in the University.

The Working Group received a formal response from Goff-Crews on Friday, Feb. 6. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Wagner states. Goff-Crews wrote that “a conversation about possible changes to the disciplinary procedures for allegations of sexual assault is needed.” A conversation, however, is a long way from concrete, substantive change.

When I asked Levine if she had any qualms about graduating this spring without seeing change, she said no. The Working Group continues to strategize, collect signatures from students, and gather endorsements from student groups. “We’re thinking about next steps to continue growing support,” especially among faculty and deans, says Wagner. Other leaders of the Working Group, like Wagner and Megan Carlson, a third-year undergraduate and co-president of National Organization for Women (NOW), will be here next year to carry on the task.

Levine remains determined. “We will keep working,” she proclaims, “until we get a commitment to resolve each of the issues on the petition.”