THB, Banditos, Wayward and more confirmed for Cosmic Cocktail!

University of Maryland student government presses for fee increase to hire sexual assault investigators

Maryland students are willing to pay to hire more sexual assault investigators in College Park

Frustrated by the slow pace of investigations into sexual misconduct allegations at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Student Government Association is calling on administrators to raise student fees to hire more investigators.

While university officials have not committed to the students' demand, university President Wallace Loh will meet SGA members Friday to discuss their proposal that all students pay an additional $17 in fees per semester. Loh has final say over the increase.

"He doesn't want to impose any kind of fee for students," said SGA President Katherine Swanson. "We're talking about the fee proposal and what they've offered, and how we can move forward."

A university spokeswoman said Thursday it was premature for Loh to say whether he would sign off on the proposal.

University administrators responded to the SGA's demand by announcing plans to hire two additional investigators, a deputy director and a coordinator for the school's Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct. The office currently is staffed by seven people, including the director and four investigators, according to its website.

"We commend the work of the Student Government Association to advocate for this critical issue," a university statement said. "We all share the same goal, and working together we will continue to invest resources to work toward a campus environment that is free from sexual misconduct."

The university will review its investigative and adjudicative processes for sexual misconduct to ensure fair and timely resolutions, the statement said.

Nonetheless, the students are pressing for the fee increase to ensure the new positions are filled. The increase would double the office's budget with about $1 million annually. The SGA also wants the office moved to the center of campus.

The students decided to act after learning it took 140 days on average last year to investigate most reports of sexual assault — far longer than the 60 days recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. After drafting the proposal, the SGA voted 32-1 on Sept. 28 to endorse the fee increase.

Swanson learned about how long the investigations were taking after meeting earlier this year with Catherine Carroll, director of the civil rights office. Through a univerasity spokeswoman, Carroll declined to discuss procedures.

The students' proposal, which would amount to $34 a year, will be considered Wednesday by the Student Fee Review Committee, which will forward its recommendation to Loh. Students pay about $1,000 a semester in fees for everything from shuttle buses and athletics to student union activities.

Meanwhile, the proposal is drawing attention from around the country.

"I like the ownership it shows," said Daniel Swinton of the NCHERM Group, a campus research, law and consulting firm in Philadelphia. "For them to say, 'We want to pay this. Here's a proposal' — that's unique. I don't know of others."

Swinton said taking 140 days to investigate and resolve sexual misconduct investigations seems "really high."

"There are things that can delay it, but 140 days would be very slow, very improperly slow. Too slow," he said. "Absent mitigating or extenuating circumstances, that would be a real problem."

The university opened the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct in 2014. Its budget grew from $643,000 in fiscal year 2015 to about $1 million in the current fiscal year.

Students mostly support the fees to raise money for the office, Swanson said.

"The overall message that we've gotten is, 'I hate that I have to pay this fee, but I understand why you're doing it,'" she said.

About 15 percent of campuses nationally last year employed a full-time sexual assault investigator, Swinton said. But as awareness continues to grow of sexual assaults on campuses, universities are increasingly hiring full-time investigators.

"A school like Maryland would need at least a couple, just based on size," he said.

One in five women are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while in college, according to a National Institute of Justice report cited by federal educators. The report found about 6 percent of men were victims.

University of Maryland administrators received 112 reports of sexual misconduct in the 2015 academic year, according to the university's first published student sexual misconduct report. Of those, 48 resulted in a complaint of sexual misconduct against a student.

Others involved an unknown assailant. Complaints ranged from stalking and relationship violence to nonconsensual sexual penetration.

Thirteen investigations had been completed by the time of the report. Three students were expelled for sexual assault. Others charged with harassment and stalking received suspension, probation and counseling. Statistics for the 2016 academic year will be published in the coming months, officials said.

Victims may choose to involve University of Maryland Police in a criminal investigation. Campus police report annual crime statistics to the Department of Education. According to the statistics, reports of rape increased from six in 2013 to 15 last year. In each of the 15 cases, the victim knew the rapist, according to the report.

Last year, Loh approved plans for the College Park campus to allow alcohol to be sold at football games. The plan was expected to generate about $500,000 a year for mental-health counseling, sexual-assault prevention and responsible-drinking programs. But the alcohol sales were not profitable the first year because of the costs to install ID checking systems and to train staff.

Swanson said she has been surprised by the national attention. The SGA's proposal was discussed in Philadelphia this month at the annual conference of Title IX administrators who ensure campuses adhere to federal laws prohibiting sexual discrimination in education.

"I'm encouraged by it," Swanson said. "We would not have gotten a response from president Loh. I don't think we would have gotten any of these things he's offering if people hadn't paid attention."

tprudente@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
66°