Editorial: SMU sexual misconduct report is a start toward culture shift

Editorial on the recommendations by a SMU's Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures for maintaining and improving programs related to sexual misconduct. The recommendations were accepted on May 8, 2013, SMU President R. Gerald Turner.

Cynicism might cause you to link another task force to the grand tradition of institutions sweeping aside bad publicity. In the case of Southern Methodist University’s task force on sexual misconduct, put aside your cynicism.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner commissioned the panel in September, after a spate of sexual misconduct incidents brought the kind of attention that no university wants. Instead of a quick once-over, the 20 panel members — including faculty, staff, students and outside experts — took a comprehensive look at the university’s programs related to sexual misconduct.

The eight-month review yielded 41 recommendations, supported unanimously by members, which Turner has accepted in full.

In 12 two-hour meetings and numerous subgroup meetings, the task force reviewed benchmarking reports from other universities and government agencies. It consulted with experts, including law enforcement officials with extensive experience.

Importantly, it spent hours listening to concerns from SMU students victimized by unwanted sexual advances or worse, but who were not sure what do about it.

The strength of the task force report is an emphasis on better training for those who might hear a complaint; education for victims; and clearer lines of communication to keep complaints from slipping beyond anyone’s ability to help.

SMU trustee Kelly Compton, who chaired the task force, says she would not be surprised to see a temporary uptick in sexual misconduct complaints, as students become more familiar and comfortable with the revised policies and procedures. Her hope is that consistent, determined follow-through will lead, over time, to the cultural changes that will bring the numbers down.

Courtney Underwood Newsome, a task force member and executive director of Dallas’ Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner initiative, says she started out skeptical but credits Compton’s leadership and the panel’s good-faith efforts to create real change. “We’ve given the administration a very strong tool,” she said. “It’s something the community, the media and everyone must stay on top of to make sure it’s a priority.”

An area of debate was the continued use of students on sexual misconduct hearing boards. This newspaper has had concerns about that but does recognize two positive steps: Students will not chair these boards and cannot be a majority of members. Panel members heard from students who believe strongly that their inclusion on such boards — which hear potential violations of the Student Code of Conduct — offer valuable peer perspective and can help other students better understand the process.

By federal law, universities must investigate all allegations of sexual misconduct. SMU students and their parents should understand that in this two-tiered process, they have the choice to take this to the university, to the police and criminal courts system — or both.

The task force and its report were important first steps for SMU. Its next steps, year upon year, to ingrain these rights and responsibilities into the university culture will be even more important.

Top-line recommendations

— SMU should enhance efforts to educate students about the right to pursue a Title IX complaint under university policy and their options to pursue criminal charges, the SMU conduct review process or both.

— SMU must clearly communicate and explain processes and ensure that staff members are well-informed in providing guidance. Education efforts also should focus on students’ understanding of consent, the interpersonal communications related to consent and the impact of alcohol use.

— SMU should develop a bystander intervention program similar to those at Duke and Yale that provide students the skills to intervene when they perceive peers to be in high-risk situations.

— Lori White, vice president for student affairs, will oversee implementation of the task force recommendations in coordination with other campus offices.

— Student affairs and other university representatives will maintain regular meetings on sexual misconduct issues with local law enforcement and resource agencies.

To read the full task force report, visit smu.edu/smunews/liveresponsibly.