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Some sexual misconduct on campus may go unpunished

Student government members have expressed concerns about the priority New Mexico State University places on sexual assault cases on campus.

In late April, the 64th Senate of the Associated Students of New Mexico State University introduced Resolution 19, urging the dean of students to issue sanctions for unresolved sexual assault or misconduct cases.

Since April 2014, 13 sexual assault or misconduct cases involving NMSU students have been referred to the dean of students for sanctions. Out of these 13 cases, five remain unresolved and another five only resulted in a year of “deferred suspension,” which means offending students were allowed to continue taking classes. Resolution 19 aims to bring attention to this issue. (Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash)

ASNMSU senator and author of the resolution, Salma Lopez, said she believes sexual assault cases on campus have not been handled properly. “I know that around campus sexual assault isn’t something that has high priority … I wanted to be able to highlight the injustices of how sexual assault cases are being handled — that way there is change,” Lopez said. 

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that protects students from dicrimination based on sex. It also prohibits sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, stalking, and domestic and dating violence.

According to Resolution 19, there were 19 sexual assault or misconduct cases on campus between April 2014 and October 2020. Six were perpetrated by employees and sent to Human Resource Services for adjudication. The remaining 13 cases involved students and were referred to the dean of students following investigations by the Office of Institutional Equity. Out of these 13 cases, five remain unresolved and another five only resulted in a year of “deferred suspension,” which means offending students were allowed to continue taking classes.

Lopez said she is concerned that the sanctions that were issued may not be severe enough.

“According to the Student Social Code of Conduct, deferred suspension is appropriate for ‘mitigating circumstances’,” Lopez said. “Sexual assault is in no way a mitigating circumstance. Even those cases that did receive sanctions, I don’t believe they were appropriate.”

The dean of students, Ann Coombes Goodman, explained “mitigating circumstances” can include agreeing to participate in counseling or drug and alcohol rehabilitation, the amount of time that has passed since the incident occurred, and even if the person is taking online classes. Most Title IX cases do include a no contact order to protect the victim, according to Goodman.

The Office of Institutional Equity is tasked with investigating sexual assault or misconuduct allegations and issuing findings. If the office finds a person responsible, the case is passed on to the dean of students for sanctioning.

“The dean of students’ job was to review the report and issue sanctions,” explained Laura Castille, the Title IX coordinator at the OIE. “They don’t have to investigate, they don’t have to do anything, all that’s been done. All they have to do is read the report and issue sanctions for the conduct.”

This process has changed as of August 2020, and all sexual assault cased cases going forward will now be sent to a committee within the OIE for sanctions. Castille said that those five unsanctioned cases are from before the changes were made.

“When I saw [Resolution 19], I think I said this, ‘it would be a concern for me if I saw just the statistics, but statistics don’t necessarily tell the whole story,’” Goodman said.

Goodman explained that while she can not discuss specific cases, the OIE’s investigation process can take many months and it’s possible these students left NMSU before the dean of students could hold sanction hearings. In this situation, a hold is placed on the student’s account so the student cannot register for classes until a decision has been made, she explained.

“That to me is not appropriate,” Castille said. “If a student is found responsible for sexual assault, then we should take action related to their transcript [or] their diploma. That is not just something that we go ‘oh well they’re gone, there’s nothing we can do.’”

Both Castille and Lopez worry that the inadequate sanctions may discourage students from reporting sexual assault in the future.

“From the information I received from the OIE, the number of reported sexual assault cases, to me, seems very low from the amount that I would assume to be on campus,” Lopez said. “I don’t think everybody reports these types of things.”

Lopez’s hunch may have some validity, as an estimated three-fourths of sexual assault cases go unreported in the U.S. according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

“I think it makes [the victims] think why did I bother reporting this?” Castille said. “There are certainly numerous circumstances where that sanction could be very appropriate, but not in every situation.”

“In my mind we are doing a lot to support both the complainant and the respondent,” Goodman said. “A lot of times the complainant will get a lot of support, and the person being accused, the respondent, would immediately become a pariah whether they were guilty or not.”

Goodman said she thinks the changes made to NMSU’s Title IX policy will make the process more straightforward and will give both parties the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

“One office handling the case from beginning to end makes a whole lot more sense and makes it much more efficient,” Goodman said.

In the end, Lopez says she and her colleagues at ASNMU hope Resolution 19 can help bring more attention to sexual assault on campus.

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