New U body to decide on sex offenses

A specially trained committee of faculty, staff and students will adjudicate sex misconduct cases.

Kevin Beckman

University of Minnesota officials are creating a new committee made of students, faculty and administrators to adjudicate sexual misconduct-related hearings. 

The subcommittee of the Campus Committee on Student Behavior (CCSB) — the body that adjudicates student behavior cases at the University — will deal exclusively with sexual misconduct-related cases. The decision comes from a recommendation made by a workgroup of students, faculty and staff, Provost Karen Hanson announced earlier this month. 

The move comes as reports of sexual misconduct at the University have increased in recent years and scrutiny has proliferated — both from victims and the accused — over institutions’ procedures for handling these cases.

“We’ve all been thinking about what are the areas of this process that we could make improvements,” said Kimberly Hewitt, the University’s Title IX coordinator and director of Equal Opportunity of and Affirmative Action. “We were trying to think about ways to make the whole process shorter and also to increase the training and education of the people who were doing the panels.” 

The CCSB, a volunteer committee of faculty, staff and students, has handled all student misconduct hearings in the past — cases that range from scholastic dishonesty to alcohol use to hazing. 

But concerns from faculty, students and committee members that the hearing process was too lengthy and complicated, as well as that panelists were inadequately trained to deal with cases of sexual misconduct, led University officials to begin exploring new means to adjudicate sexual misconduct-related hearings. 

“The subcommittee will be specifically trained on sexual misconduct cases, said CCSB secretary Becky Hippert. “We’ll be able to put more energy into that one topic from various perspectives.”

Hippert said more than 100 students have applied. Hewitt said that between 40 and 50 faculty have also applied. 

“We were pleased with the response on both sides,” Hewitt said. 

Hewitt said the subcommittee will consist of between three and five panelists, comprising students, faculty, staff and school administrators, and a panel chair. The committee will judge whether an accused student is responsible and also determine sanctions. 

Beginning in 2014, a workgroup of representatives from the Aurora Center, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, the University of Minnesota Police Department, and undergraduate and graduate student governments has discussed how to make the adjudication process for sexual misconduct cases quicker and fairer, Hewitt said. 

“They’re super complicated cases,” Hewitt said. “We were concerned about the timing and that the people who are making these decisions are supported with enough information and education.” 

Although the workgroup looked at other schools — such as Claremont McKenna College and the University of Michigan — to develop a model for the subcommittee, the University’s approach will be unique, Hewitt said. 

“I couldn’t point to another school that does exactly what we do,” she said. 

In the old model, CCSB members received about five hours of training on handling sexual misconduct cases a year. The new committee will receive about 20 hours of training a year.

“That’s more than we’re able to do for the current Student Behavior Committee because we have to focus on a wide range of conduct code violations,” Hippert said.

While logistics are still undetermined, outside experts, along with University entities like the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and the Aurora Center, will conduct the training, Hewitt said. 

Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center, said training may include proper techniques for interviewing victims without retriggering them, examining physical evidence and recognizing signs of victim trauma.

“Through law enforcement practices and University investigations, we’ve learned a lot of different techniques in terms of types of evidence that can be present and what to look for,” she said. “[It’s] a very broad and thorough sense of our panel needing to know these nuances when investigating and hearing out cases.” 

Applications for potential committee members will be accepted until July 25. 

Hewitt said accepted applicants will have five hours of training on Aug. 11 and again on Aug. 18. The remaining 10 hours of training will happen through the course of the school year, but the first 10 hours must be completed before panelists can hear a case.

Since the subcommittee is a new method, Hewitt said the approach may evolve after it’s been implemented this school year.

“Everybody who is involved in this work is constantly reevaluating it … [and] looking at our own processes to think about how we can improve upon them,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.” 

Hippert said other CCSB processes won’t change, and the way the University investigates sexual misconduct cases will stay the same.

“The process for the subcommittee mirrors the CCSB process very much,” she said. “We wanted to keep them very similar and not do something too different because we think the current process works.” 

University officials said they don’t expect that implementing and running the new subcommittee would cost additional money. Panelists would be volunteers, and the school is looking for experts to volunteer their time for training.