Regents approve rules for student-conduct cases

The state’s Board of Regents approved uniform policies Wednesday outlining how Georgia’s public colleges and universities will handle sexual violence and other student-conduct violations.

The new rules, which take effect July 1, provide guidelines for how investigations will be handled, the training required for investigators and other campus officials involved in adjudicating the cases, and protections for students who are either victims or accused of violations.

Sexual misconduct cases will no longer be decided by a single university investigator, as had occurred on some campuses. Now at least a three-member panel will decide those. Previously some schools, including Georgia Tech, allowed an investigator to use interviews and evidence collected to make a decision without a formal hearing. But that could allow the investigator’s personal bias to affect the decision, critics said. Both parties will also be allowed to have an adviser or attorney present at each stage of the investigation, hearing and appeal.

Training for everyone involved in investigations, hearings and appeals will be required. Investigators will no longer be allowed to train student-conduct panels, and students will no longer be allowed to sit on judicial panels in sexual misconduct cases. Two family members will also be allowed to attend meetings and proceedings. A mother of a 19-year-old Georgia Tech student recently told state lawmakers that school officials would not allow her into her son’s sexual misconduct hearing.

The change comes after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s extensive reporting on variations in how sexual assault cases are handled on Georgia campuses and the lack of criminal prosecutions in campus rape cases.

Each school has set its own procedures, within federal guidelines, that varied widely from campus to campus. The potpourri of rules led several students, their parents and lawyers representing them, to claim that the procedures were deeply flawed and violated their right to due process.

“We are committed to providing safe and welcoming campuses for all of our students,” said Chancellor Hank Huckaby. “Our goal is simple yet critically important to our campus communities — to provide more consistent and clearer systemwide practices to ensure fairness for all of our students.”

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart had been critical of the previous policies, particularly at Georgia Tech, which he claimed did not provide fair treatment for students accused of violations, as it did for those who were alleged victims.

Under the new rules, cases will still be decided on “a preponderance of the evidence,” the standard used in civil trials. That’s a lower bar than proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” needed for a conviction in a criminal trial. But no student can be suspended or expelled unless substantial evidence is identified to support the finding.

The policies approved Wednesday provide “a clear constitutional due process for all institutions, not just Tech,” Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said Wednesday. “Due process is a basic American right.”

But a group of Georgia Tech students said the new policies do not go far enough to protect sexual assault victims.

“When I look at the policy I see an effort to make the reporting, investigating and decision-making process as cumbersome as possible to discourage victims of sexual assault from pursuing student misconduct charges,” said Kate Napier, a student and member of Georgia Tech’s Title IXers, an advocacy group against sexual assault and sexual harassment. Georgia Tech’s previous policies, Napier noted, included a higher standard for sexual consent.

“I think the environment for victims of sexual assault will be made much worse and (they) will be less likely to step forward and receive the kind of support that they deserve,” she said.

The rules approved Wednesday grew out of a campus safety committee last year, which recommended systemwide polices on sexual misconduct. As part of the recommendation, the University System launched a campus safety initiative that included hiring a systemwide coordinator to oversee sexual violence cases, along with mandating sexual violence training for all freshmen students. The policies were expanded to include campuses’ handling of other student misconduct.

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