Proposed sexual misconduct policy aims to clarify procedure

By Alexa Bakalarski / News Editor

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As the incoming class of 2020 steps onto Pitt’s campus, a new sexual misconduct policy may be joining it.

A Provost’s ad hoc committee has developed a new, more concise sexual misconduct policy that is up to date with federal Title IX requirements. The new policy outlines procedures for reporting sexual misconduct and violence, investigations, the resolution of complaints and the appeals process, as well as new rules for employees.

According to Katie Pope, Pitt’s Title IX coordinator, the proposed policy aims to make practices already used at Pitt more concrete and clear within University policy.

“[The new policy is] to make sure folks understand that a lot of what we’ve been doing in the past couple years is what we want to continue to do,” Pope said.

The Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pam Connelly said people could misunderstand the previous policy as covering just employees, instead of all members of Pitt’s community.

“The committee really wanted to make it apparent that this was something that covered the entire University community,” Connelly said. “I think trying to make it a clearer policy was a high priority.”

The new policy passed through the Faculty Assembly at a meeting May 10. The Senate Council voted in favor of the policy May 18. Though Pitt spokesperson John Fedele couldn’t confirm it, it is likely that the Board of Trustees will vote on the policy at their annual meeting June 24.

University of Pittsburgh – 2016 Sexual Misconduct Policy

Elizabeth Mulvaney, a social work professor at Pitt who attended the Faculty Assembly meeting, said she’s grateful the ad hoc committee undertook the difficult task of updating the policy.

“The new policy is a necessary update to an old policy which is out of date and not in compliance with regulatory expectations,” Mulvaney said in an email.  “It is a difficult area to create a single policy that provides the structure to foster a safe and healthy environment for everyone — students, staff, faculty and administration — and provides enough flexibility to respond in a reasonable way to a wide array of behaviors, some of which are very serious, perhaps criminal.”

According to Connelly, the ad hoc committee included the procedures in the policy to make the processes easier to find. The policy outlines the procedures based on a person’s connection to sexual misconduct or violence: the victim, the accused and staff or faculty members who learn about sexual misconduct or violence occurring.

Another proposed addition to the sexual misconduct policy is the responsible employee designation, which requires employees to report information to the Title IX office after learning about an instance of sexual misconduct. 

“A student has an expectation that anybody that they might report to would be able to take some kind of action, would be able to direct them in the right place, would be able to provide them with assistance or take them to where they could be provided with assistance,” Pope said. “And that’s what the responsible employee piece is.”

The federal Office of Civil Rights defines a responsible employee as an employee who has the authority to take action or redress sexual violence, an employee who a Title IX coordinator has given reporting duties or an employee who a student believes would have such authority or duty.

Though Connelly says the proposed policy applies to most Pitt employees,  it does not require licensed mental health and pastoral counselors to report to the Title IX office. On-campus employees and volunteers at the Student Health Center or the University Counseling Center typically do not have to reveal identifying information to the Title IX office either, though the policy recommends the employee report general details of the incident.

Pitt’s faculty newspaper the University Times reported that debate on the policy at the Faculty Assembly mainly centered around concerns that the responsible employee designation puts faculty in an uncomfortable position because a student might not wish to officially report information to the Title IX office.

“Any failure to follow University policy can result in disciplinary action,  which will be guided by the specifics of the incident, Connelly said. 

“I think a lot of our faculty — they are very dedicated to the students, and I think they felt some conflict about feeling as if perhaps they would have to let the Title IX office know and that could cause some tension with respect to confidentiality,” Connelly said.

Pope said even though the policy requires employees to report to the Title IX office, the office doesn’t report information outside of its office without permission from the person who originally reported it.

“The biggest penalty is that you have a student who may not get the assistance that they need,” Pope said about not reporting to the Title IX office. “That’s really the whole emphasis behind that expectation.”

Mulvaney said she understands both sides of the argument surrounding the responsible employee designation.

“I understand that the University cannot detect and respond to bad actors if it doesn’t get information.  Having us report will enable the University to respond better, and signals we want to be a safe and responsive campus,” Mulvaney said. “On the other hand, people who experience sexual misconduct are not always ready to have their information shared and may want to talk to a trusted person in confidence without losing control of that information.”

Connelly said both sides of the debate have the well-being of Pitt students at heart.

“I do think there was significant debate, but I think it was all from a position of everyone trying to do what’s right for the students,” Connelly said. “And I think … that’s what carried the day. We really want to get the students connected to the people and the resources that can help.”

Under the new policy, Pitt’s Title IX office will also take a more active role in investigating complaints of sexual misconduct involving only faculty. Connelly said Pitt’s Title IX office has been working with departments to conduct investigations for at least a year but writing it into the policy helps define the procedure Pitt follows.

“I think it will help a lot with making sure that the process is run completely beginning to end and is consistent,” Connelly said.

Pope said the new policy will be available as a tool for incoming and current members of Pitt’s community.

“We want to make sure that students can get back in the classroom, that they can be successful and the only way we can offer accommodations and interim measures is if we know that somebody needs that assistance,” Pope said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.

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