By: Meredith Francis ~Campus News Editor~
Student Body President Colleen Reynolds has joined other student body presidents around the country in signing a letter advocating for improvement in handling sexual assault cases on college campuses.
In an open letter released to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Feb. 23, Reynolds and 75 other student body presidents, representing more than 1.2 million students nationwide, outlined their concerns about the role of students on conduct boards that review sexual assault cases.
Celia Right, student body president at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, started the initiative after learning about the failings of university conduct boards throughout the United States.
Wright said she initially planned to write a letter by herself to Duncan.
“I thought to write a letter from me to Arne Duncan, but came to realize that the message would be more powerful if I could prove that this is an issue meaningful to students nationally. I found contact information for student body presidents and reached out to as many as I could,” Wright said.
Reynolds said she was eager to get involved after Wright approached her.
“With the launch of the national ‘It’s On Us’ campaign this fall, sexual assault prevention has been on the agenda of countless student body presidents across the nation,” Reynolds said. “It’s been inspiring to hear the creative work that student governments across our state have been doing to make sure our communities are both safe and respectful of all members.”
According to the letter, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recommends that students not be allowed to participate in conduct hearings related to sexual violence. It was this policy that prompted Wright’s involvement.
“When I learned of the Department of Education’s recommendation that students be removed from these hearings, in the form of a recommendation to Ohio State from an agreement with us last fall, I became deeply concerned. While the recommendation means well, its effect may be counter-intuitive,” Wright said.
The letter lists objections to the OCR policy, saying “students provide valuable perspective as peers that faculty and staff cannot. They relate to the student experience directly and provide insight during questioning and discussion, enhancing the quality of hearings.”
Before signing the letter, Reynolds discussed the issue with Title IX Coordinator Kate Lawson, whose office handles such cases.
“While I put a lot of thought behind my decision to sign the letter and offer an appendix, my decision to sign was ultimately quite simple: student voice should always be a priority, especially in the context of representation,” Reynolds said.
According to Lawson, the letter is representative of a turning point in sexual assault dialogue.
“I think it says that, courtesy of persistent, courageous student activism across the country, we’ve reached a tipping point,” Lawson said. “This is no longer an issue anyone can opt out of discussing or pretend doesn’t exist. I think it says a critical mass of students across the country understand the impact sexual violence has on their lives and their communities, and want their voices heard on the matter.