Students push changes to sexual assault policies

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • May 05, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

If a classmate sexually assaults a student at one of Chicago’s many universities, the process for seeking treatment, getting counseling or filing a complaint can sometimes be confusing and unintuitive.

The judicial process is often kept secret to protect the privacy of victims, but that can sometimes make it hard for the accused to defend themselves. And with training across campus departments uneven at many schools, cases many not be handled consistently.

Challenges such as those have pushed students at two Chicago schools to take the lead in refining policies by meeting with administrators, gathering student opinions and issuing recommendations that are getting traction.

Loyola University and the University of Chicago are making changes to their sexual assault policies for the next school year in large part because of the work of students.

“We really found out that no one had any idea what the policies were, no one knew where you could go for services,” says Michelle D’Onofrio, a Loyola senior who has been helping lead the effort to tweak the campus’ sexual assault policy.

The big issue, she says: Loyola’s policy addresses how alleged perpetrators will be tried, but not what victims can do. The campus’ health center had a Web page of resources but it is buried on the school’s site, and Campus Safety officers had limited training.

By this fall, the campus handbook will list many of the resources for victims in one place, D’Onofrio says, as well as provide a victim’s bill of rights. A new Web page will provide a similar list, and Campus Safety officers are already getting additional training.

The changes are happening relatively quickly at a school that, while progressive, ultimately has strong Jesuit roots. That means no condoms or contraceptives are available to students on campus – a policy that bothers students like D’Onofrio, but which likely won’t change soon.

“Yeah it is ridiculous, but I think this is a bigger issue than the fact that I can’t get condoms,” D’Onofrio says. “This is a culture of silence that’s creating the problem.”

By the fall of 2010, D’Onofrio hopes to tweak orientation for incoming students to provide better information about the school’s sexual assault policy – and to encourage people to talk openly about the issue. Right now, that part of orientation consists of an “awkward” skit, she says, that makes light of the seriousness of sexual assault.

At the University of Chicago, which developed its first policy on sexual assault five years ago, students are looking for an overhaul.

Right now, the process is similar whether a student is suspected of plagiarism or rape. Students go before a board comprising professors in their division – even if the case involves sexual assault that happened far from an academic building.

“You have professors who don’t necessarily have any training in what the issues are,” says student body president Matthew Kennedy.

But that’s changing, with the administration agreeing that professors need training before they hear sexual assault cases.

“It’s actually moving along, which is a welcome surprise for this place, and the administration agreed to do a full review of the policy for next year,” says Aliza Levine, who has been actively involved in the student group that has been studying the university’s sexual assault policy.

Students hope the full review next year will consider other changes, like establishing one board that hears all sexual assault cases, rather than spreading the cases out across campus divisions.

“What we’d really like to see is a centralized committee that hears these kinds of cases,” Levine says.

As at Loyola, one of the underlying issues at the University of Chicago is creating an atmosphere that makes talking about sexual assault less taboo.

“The sense of the working group is that the current situation is not conducive to people wanting to come forward,” Kennedy says.


Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.