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State colleges revising sexual assault policies

Maryland's colleges revamping their sexual assault policies

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued recommendations to the state's universities Thursday as they work to revamp their approach to sexual misconduct, including training students to intervene when they can and directing school officials to work more closely with law enforcement.

Universities have until the end of the year to implement new policies to prevent assaults and encourage students to report them.

"We hope that all the universities, public and private, as well as [the University System of Maryland] will be part of helping to push forward the solution to the issue," Gansler said, "whether it's changing the culture of bystander intervention or better coordination between campus police, local police and the state's attorney's office."

A White House task force has outlined steps schools should be taking to address assaults, and the Maryland attorney general's office and the Maryland Higher Education Commission recommended that all Maryland colleges and universities make changes to their policies. They have until Dec. 31 to comply with the state recommendations.

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents adopted a new policy over the summer, based on advice from the attorney general. The 11 schools in the system are using that policy as a model.

The policy divides sexual assault into two categories: Sexual Assault I is defined as "any act of sexual intercourse with another individual without consent." Sexual Assault II is defined as "any intentional touching of the intimate parts of another person, causing another to touch one's intimate parts, or disrobing or exposure of another without consent."

The University of Maryland, College Park has submitted an interim policy that deviates from that model.

The state's flagship campus limits the definition of "sexual assault" to an act of "sexual penetration with another individual without consent."

It defines the "unwarranted intentional touching of the intimate body parts of another person on yourself, causing another to touch your intimate body parts; or the disrobing or exposure of another without consent" as "sexual contact."

College Park student Katherine Swanson said the wording has some students concerned for their safety.

"They're concerned about the rigidity of punishment for people who do commit sexual assaults," said Swanson, "and I think that is a valid concern. This is a very big issue."

Amber Ebanks, a sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y., agreed.

"Some students here think it means that if there's a lack of penetration it's not a sexual assault," Ebanks said. "A lot of times here at the university, when we do get the crime alerts, it's for groping or for people watching you, not always a rape.

"A lot of students feel as though if they're not raped but feel victimized in other ways that are sexual assault, then their [complaints] won't be as important as others, so they can't report it."

Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the way that colleges and universities define sexual misconduct is critical.

"The details are important to [sexual assault] survivors," Jordan added. "You have to be respectful and careful of the language you use."

University officials said they changed the definitions for clarity.

"Some universities use one definition to capture a wide range of unwanted sexual contact — referring to everything from forced sexual intercourse to forced voyeurism, stalking and dating violence," said Catherine Carroll, the school's Title IX coordinator. "The changes to the UMD policy are to clarify the difference between nonconsensual sexual intercourse or oral sex and other forms of nonconsensual sexual contact."

A College Park student has started a petition on Change.org to protest the definition change. The petition had about 1,500 supporters Thursday.

Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at College Park, said the interim policy has been given to the University Senate and that a committee will examine it. She said the school might stage open forums, hearings and petition readings on the document as well.

"The students that are signing the petition are seeking a broader definition of sexual assault," she said. "It's not just an issue involving violence, but it involves any kind of contact. That's what the heart of the debate will be. It is certainly an interim policy and there will be changes before it's final."

One in five women is sexually assaulted at college, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it is believed most of the cases are not reported.

In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University and Frostburg State University have been investigated by federal authorities this year over the alleged mishandling of reported sexual assaults.

Most schools say they have also decided to implement new provisions that go beyond the guidelines.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, officials said the school will implement additional training for university leaders on responding to reports of sexual misconduct. Ultimately, the training will extend to faculty and staff, UMBC said.

Hopkins announced new policies and procedures Oct. 1, months after students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education because the university did not notify the campus of a reported rape at a fraternity house.

The president of the university said the failure to notify the community was "unacceptable."

A Hopkins spokesman described several policy changes.

"First," spokesman Dennis O'Shea said, "we're giving students involved in sexual misconduct cases more support. They now have the right to consult the adviser of their choice, including an attorney, and to bring that adviser to any interviews or proceedings.

"Second, we've modified the adjudication process by removing students from conduct boards, barring cross-examination by the parties, and eliminating questions about sexual history with other people.

"Third, we've committed to moving about twice as fast in most cases, with final resolution of a complaint usually coming within 60 days."

A 16-year-old girl reported this month that she was raped at an off-campus Hopkins fraternity house, according to law enforcement sources. University officials ordered the fraternity to cease activities as Baltimore police investigate and has since banned all social events at fraternities.

The university notified students about 21/2 hours after the sexual assault was alleged to have occurred at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house in the 2900 block of St. Paul St.

Hopkins students and advocates for sexual assault victims said the school's response was an improvement from the previous reported rape.

Frostburg State and Morgan State are also being investigated by federal officials over their handling of reported assaults.

Frostburg State officials have said the investigation there involves the report of an off-campus sexual assault of a student last year.

Morgan State officials said the investigation at their school involves the alleged sexual assault of a female student Feb. 28, an incident that she reported to the university March 20.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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