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A Q&A with administrators: recent changes to sexual assault adjudication processes

  • TEAM TITLE IX | Melissa Rooker (left), Columbia's Title IX coordinator, and other administrators spoke with Spectator Thursday.

On Thursday, Spectator sat down with administrators who oversee sexual assault and gender-based misconduct policy at Columbia to discuss recent policy changes, how students are chosen for hearing panels, and why investigators don’t record interviews. Administrators also discussed their concerns and thoughts on the recent media attention on sexual assault policy at Columbia, in another article here.

Q. There has been much discussion about how the current gender-based and sexual misconduct adjudication process works, and you have already started to make some changes. Are you working on any other changes to sexual assault and gender-based misconduct policy now?

Jeri Henry, associate dean of judicial affairs and community standards: It would be unfair to say that we would never make a change. We have to roll with the times, and this is a 10,000-foot vantage point—there’s no one-size-fits-all model for this. I know it sometimes seems easy to look at other schools and say, ‘Well, maybe that would fit perfectly at Columbia.’ But you’re looking at a table full of people and a lot more people who are a part of this process, and we’re working together to make the best policies, procedures, and system work for our campus, our students. It’s important to us to keep our eyes open and listen to what’s happening in our community. And trust us that we’re the most competent professionals in the right positions reviewing this information.

Michael Dunn, director of investigations: Just because we don’t have any plans to make changes to policies or practices at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not open to it. I think we have to be in tune with the campus community and what they’re saying, but we also have to pay attention to the national dialogue—President Obama’s task force, the national best practices that are emerging, what our colleagues are doing at other institutions. We’re all in this together, and I think we’re all trying to find the best way forward. 

For the last month or so, we’ve been working with some students to develop a really straightforward, simple, two-page flow chart or some sort of executive summary of the policies on gender-based misconduct.

[Related: University launches new site to clarify sexual assault information]

Q. How are students chosen to serve on hearing panels?

Melissa Rooker, Title IX coordinator: We asked the deans of students. We felt that was a good way to see what students might be the best choice because, again, this is a very sensitive topic and we don’t want students who may have other reasons for sitting there.  We interviewed students and then brought them on for training, and if they completed training, they could serve on a hearing panel. They have to complete the whole training, and if they can’t, they can’t serve on the panel.

Dunn: The training is pretty extensive. It’s a lot to ask of students to give up three Fridays to complete training. And then when it’s time to assemble a hearing panel, we really try to get an experienced panelist, someone who may not have as much experience, and a student to make sure we have a multitude of voices represented and a balanced perspective. 

Q. What happens if either the complainant or respondent has a conflict of interest with a member of their hearing panel?

Rooker: Those names are given to both the complainant and the respondent, and they indicate if they have a conflict. They don’t have to say exactly what the conflict is, but they have the opportunity to say if there’s a conflict and they have to present it to the assistant director [of the Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct office], and then a swap can be made. And that’s done way pre-hearing.

Dunn: If the case involves two CC students, we certainly won’t get an administrator who works with CC students or another CC student on the panel.

Samuel Seward, director of Columbia Health: I think even this important piece may say a little bit about why it takes a bit of time to assemble a panel.

[Related: University Senate moves ahead with review of PACSA membership, proceedings]

Q. To that end, how many cases are actually completed in 60 days, the goal time frame identified by the University for these cases to be completed?

Rooker: I think the 60 days is a goal that the government and we have set to complete these cases. We can get a case coming in, and depending on the scheduling of the students, depending on exams—especially if a case comes in at the beginning of December and then there’s the break—that’s maybe three weeks that adds to the time. It really depends on the type of the case. Some cases are resolved relatively quickly, especially if someone takes responsibility—that’s an easy case to move forward because we don’t have to spend time on the hearing. But, again, our goal is to work through with 60 days and usually there are some exigent circumstances why a case has to be halted or that there’s a pause.

Amy Zavadil, Barnard’s Title IX coordinator: If there is going to be a delay, or it’s not going to be completed in the period of time which is typical, there’s communication from the assistant director to both parties so that there’s awareness along the way.

Dunn: That timeline is something that I always feel very acutely aware of. I know that for the students involved, this is something that’s weighing very heavily on their minds. Their lives are disrupted in any number of ways—personally, socially, academically—and when a report comes in, we see the students involved the next day. What becomes challenging for us is the fact that it’s never one case for two months. You’re a week into one case and another one comes down the pipe. When it becomes time to assemble a hearing panel, everything else gets put on the back burner so we can focus on the hearing panel. So managing a number of cases, all of which are urgent to one degree or another, is difficult and can also add some time. But with that said, we’re also cognizant of all the people who don’t care about all the other cases—they care about their cases. In the day-to-day, when you’re personally doing the job, you’re doing the best you can to manage a workload with a number of cases. So that timeline is something we take really seriously and really aspire to meet, but there are other challenges involved. 

Zavadil: The other challenge to acknowledge is that for the individuals involved, it started in different ways. Most commonly, the complainant has been feeling these things or experiencing these things before they tell anyone, meaning that it could be a process of days or months or days or weeks before it actually becomes a case. The experience of one individual may take forever because there was this period of time before the reporting process began that’s still very real to them. 

Henry: It’s just important not to take the timing out of context, and I think it’s very easy to do that—to look at something and not be able to see all of the moving parts. These are incredibly complex cases that don’t often just involve the complainant and respondent, but also other students and witnesses. We want to think about the totality of it, which is a bit more complex than just the simple date. 

Q: Why do investigators take notes by hand instead of recording interviews with complainants and respondents?

Rooker: One of the reasons is sort of the best practices at other schools is not recording these types of interviews. The hearing panels are recorded, and that’s primarily for the sanctioning officer. The two investigators take notes and then review their notes with the complainant and respondent—whoever the interviewee is—and say, ‘Have I accurately understood what you said to me?’

Zavadil: The value of the interview process is that it is a process—it’s not about a single conversation. And particularly, when you’re talking about sexual violence, there is traumatic response and the evolution of this conversation that lends itself more to the conversation and the note taking than recording. Part of the process also includes the fact that each party has the opportunity to review the report in more than one place during the process, so there is opportunity to identify if one party feels like something hasn’t been captured, and have that conversation.

Henry: From a personal standpoint, sitting across the table from someone—whether it’s a complainant, a respondent, or a witness—and sliding a recorder across the table rather than having a dialogue and taking notes on what was said, it sets up a very different dynamic. You want to be able to trust the person and have an open dialogue about something that is one of the most personal and possibly devastating moments of your life, and it takes up a totally different tone to be recorded and to guard possibly what you’re saying out loud versus just capturing the sentiment by note.

Dunn: The last thing we want is someone to go through this process and then say, ‘You know what, my voice was not heard’ or ‘I wasn’t represented accurately.’ The whole point of the interview process—a process we’re bolstering by having two investigators and renewing our efforts to go over our notes with the people in the conversation—is to make sure they’re heard. 

Q:How can students be sure of the accuracy of those notes?

Henry: That’s why it’s best practice to have two people in the room, because someone is often leading the questions and someone is often taking the notes. If you think about the thousands of files we have in the Office of the Judicial Affairs and the students’ ability to come back and review those notes, do you have any idea how many students come back and say that they have an issue with the notes that were taken? None—it just doesn’t happen. Students can bring their own statements, but students are not coming back, reviewing notes, and saying that this isn’t what I said. Part of that is getting clarification along the way and allowing students the ability to have an open dialogue. But with two people, it’s easier.

Dunn: It’s a slow conversation. When we have these conversations, there’s a lot of ‘Ok, let me make sure I got this,’ ‘Does this capture what you said?’, ‘Am I getting this right?’. One of the skills investigators develop is to know when to really hone in and make sure they have a word-for-word quotation versus when broader notes are sufficient. I actually do think notes can be just as valuable as a recording.

Zavadil: Contextually, it can actually be more valuable when someone who’s relaying something very personal can adapt what they’re saying to say ‘I’m having trouble getting it out, but this is really the essence of what I’m trying to convey’ as well as being able to capture the context—if someone hesitating if you’re just listening to it, you wonder what that is about. But when you’re sitting with someone and there’s a dialogue, it’s clearer that they’re gathering their words, there’s emotion, or there’s a bird outside the window that’s distracted them.

Seward: I think what I’m trying to suggest in just a start-to-finish recording, you don’t have the ability to say that ‘That seems extraneous,’ or ‘I’m not sure that’s an important part of this.’ You kind of get in a legal process where the idea is to use what you can to support your client. I, at least, would have reservations an unmitigated transcript of the conversation versus something that’s written. 

[Related: Following months of student activism, University will release sexual assault data]

Q: What’s the role of a supporter during the process?

Rooker: Both parties—both the complainant and respondent—have the right to have a complainant and supporter with them throughout the process, whether it’s intake with the assistant director, all the investigative interviewing, the hearing. Anywhere in the process, they have the right to a supporter. That supporter, however, must be a member of the University community and can be someone who has a JD or is an attorney, but is not acting as an attorney for the University or the College. And that student cannot have someone as a supporter who is in a formal role with that student. So let’s say the student has a current faculty member, they’re in that faculty member’s class—the student may not ask that faculty member to act as their supporter. They can ask another faculty member who they’re not associated with right now in some formal capacity or another advisor—not their own advisor at that time.

Dunn: I think the supporter can play a really valuable role in the hearing and in interviews. They’re not bound and gagged, and they can’t talk. Obviously, notes can be passed, and that’s encouraged. But I think supporters can be really valuable not only for moral support, but also to lean over and whisper ‘Hey, you had mentioned this, don’t forget to include this comment, or this or that.’ Unless they’re banging on the table saying ‘I object,’ there’s not really going to be a problem. We don’t want the supporter to be useless—I mean we might as well have a mannequin in there—but we do want them to be a real source of support and encouragement for the party, both sides. 

Rooker: I think the point of having the supporter pass notes or not speak is because we really want to interview the complainant or the respondent. We’re not interviewing the supporter. Sometimes a supporter may want to speak up...because, for whatever reason, the complainant or respondent isn’t doing so. But we’re trying to interview the complainant or the respondent.

Dunn: The same rights and the responsibilities that are accorded to the complainant are tried to sort of be accorded similarly to the respondent. We don’t want to privilege one person over the other. We want to make sure each party has a fair shake and the same opportunities for support and to be heard.

Rooker: Everything that we do for the complainant, we do similarly for the respondent. 

Seward: I think if you look at any piece of this process, you’ll see that balance.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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