October 1, 2016

Student petition seeks to improve sexual assault policy

Kalani Seaver sat in her Introduction to Sociology class assigned with the task of answering a question: What problems do you see in the world, and how can you fix them?

Seaver, a sociology major, considered the assignment and thought, “Why don’t we try to fix a problem now?” Seaver worked with then-Webster students Bridgette Kluger and Katie Hoffecker to figure out what they thought was missing from Webster University’s sexual assault policy. A few days later, Seaver, Kluger and Hoffecker had drawn up a petition requesting that Webster University consider making a series of changes to its sexual assault policy. 

The petition was published to Change.org on Dec. 12. Over a month later, it had gained 1,000 signatures. On Jan. 30, Seaver formally presented the petition to Dean of Students Ted Hoef. Seaver said Hoef would send her a written response on behalf of the  university but did not say when the response would be given.

The petition claims the university has been lacking a good policy for protection against sexual assault during the past 16 months. The petition offers six strategies to “maintain a safe environment of academic excellence.”

Kluger, who said she left Webster because the theater direction program was not  right for her, said the focus of the petition is student accountability.

Two of its six points call for students to sign contracts acknowledging they have read and understand the student code of conduct and the sexual assault policy. Another point calls for students to re-sign their contracts on the policy before they register for the following semester.

Kluger believes requiring signatures from students will remove any grey areas about what conduct is acceptable on campus.

“Someone can’t claim, ‘I didn’t know that was against the rules.’ It’s their responsibility to abide by the student code of conduct,” Kluger said.

Zero-tolerance policy

Among the six strategies, the petition calls for a forum between students and the administration to discuss the creation of a zero-tolerance policy. Webster’s sexual assault policy, which was updated on Sept. 18, does not contain a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment or abuse.

Seaver said colleges and universities in general punish students more heavily for integrity issues, but she said violating another person is a more important offense.

Seaver argued there is danger in allowing a sexual offender or harasser to be on campus. She said an opportunity could arise for the offender to commit another crime against the same victim or a different victim.

Kluger did express concern that adopting a zero-tolerance policy could potentially prevent students from reporting sexual harassment violations, out of fear of “ruining someone’s life.”

“It is a very serious thing to be kicked out of school. It does have a very serious effect on your life,” Kluger said. “We didn’t want to say (to the administration), ‘You need to implement a zero-tolerance policy’, but we did think it was important to talk about it.”

“It’s on you, Webster” 

On Jan. 21, Hoffecker published an article on her blog summarizing her last semester at Webster, where she claims a student was stalking her. In the fall 2014 semester, Hoffecker, a then-junior acting major, filed a complaint against the alleged stalker.

After her hearing with Webster about the claim, the student was found not guilty. Hoffecker left the university at the end of the semester out of concern for her own safety. Hoffecker wrote on her blog about the disappointment she felt the university did not find the student guilty of stalking. She also wrote Webster needed a “wake-up call” when it came to handling sexual assault.  She titled the blog post, ‘It’s On You, Webster University.’

Webster’s sexual assault policy says when a complaint is filed by a student, the complaint is studied by Sexual Offense Hearing Boards made up of trained students, faculty and staff.

According to the statement from the university, a hearing of the case is held before the hearing boards issue sanctions in compliance with the university’s policy.

University Response

On Jan. 22, The Journal requested a response from the university regarding the petition. The university responded to the request with a written statement summarizing the institution’s commitment to providing a safe environment for students. It also reviewed the actions the university is taking to improve its sexual assault policy and the process the university goes through when examining a complaint filed by a student.

In the days following its Jan. 22 request, The Journal requested interviews with Dean of Students Ted Hoef and Interim Director of Public Safety Rick Gerger, both of whom told The Journal to speak with Barbara O’Malley, Webster’s Chief Communications Officer of Global Marketing and Communications. On Jan. 30, O’Malley told The Journal the university would not have anything to say beyond the written statement.

In the Nov. 12 issue of The Journal, Webster alumna Mackie Saylor wrote a letter to the editor urging university President Elizabeth Stroble to reform Webster’s sexual assault policy. Stroble responded to Saylor’s piece in a Dec. 10 issue and detailed the steps the university is taking to ensure the safety of students.

Stroble wrote that in response to the Fall 2014 Delegates’ Agenda, she has developed a task force on Prevention, Education, Awareness and Programs for Sexual Assault and Other Sexual Offenses. The task force will study and suggest additional steps the university can take to prevent and address sexual misconduct on all Webster campuses. It will also look for ways the university can improve its role in providing information, training and education on sexual offenses and related issues.

According to a statement issued to the The Journal from the university, the task force will report back to Stroble this month. The statement was given after the The Journal’s request for interviews and response to the petition.

Written statement from Webster to The Journal 

January 22, 2015

Webster University Statement

Webster University takes sexual assault, harassment, and other sexual offenses seriously and has had strong programs in place for many years. The University continually reviews and revises programs to provide a safe environment and ensure compliance with changing federal laws. Webster University focuses on prevention, education, reporting, adjudication and support.

When complaints are filed at Webster, the University institutes procedures that assure due process and privacy of individuals. Sexual Offense Hearing Boards are comprised of trained students, faculty and staff who judiciously study the cases, hold hearings, and decide on appropriate sanctions, in compliance with policy and law. Webster’s policy provides for a range of sanctions based on the nature and seriousness of the act.

Occasionally, individuals who may or may not be aware of the facts of a case, or the FERPA requirement regarding confidentiality, will challenge the findings. In accordance with University policy, cases are assigned to a Title IX Coordinator or a Sexual Offense Hearing Board (dependent on choice of the complainant) which listens to all accounts and carefully applies due process for all individuals involved. Not all policy violations are classified as criminal violations, but students who file the initial accounts are also advised on how to report the incident to local law enforcement, if they wish to take those steps.

Webster University is committed to promptly and effectively responding to reports of sexual offenses and harassment and take appropriate actions to prevent, correct, and if necessary apply sanctions should the policy be violated. The University also is committed to on-going programming to promote prevention and education related to eliminating incidents of violations of this policy, including mandatory training for faculty and staff and continual educational programs for students. This semester, President Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble launched a Presidential Task Force on the Prevention, Education, Awareness and Programs for Sexual Assault and Other Sexual Offenses. This Task Force is pursuing ways to strengthen the institution’s role in information, training and education on sexual offenses and related issues. It will report back to the President in February, 2015.

Resources:

You can find contact information for our Title IX coordinators online at http://www.webster.edu/student-handbook/title_ix_coor.html, as well as read our Student Code of Conduct, which includes numerous references to how Webster University fulfills Title IX requirements.

Our Clery reports are online at www.webster.edu/public-safety/reports.html.

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