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College Presidents Oppose Trump Administration Plan For More Safeguards For Students Accused Of Sexual Assault

Suffolk University (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Suffolk University (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and presidents of three colleges in the city are lining up against a Trump administration proposal to offer more protections to students accused of sexual assault.

Of particular concern to Walsh and the education leaders: a proposal to allow a student accused of sexual assault to cross-examine their accuser through a representative, such as a faculty member, friend or attorney.

"Such a procedure, within an educational setting far outside of a criminal court setting or proceeding, would dissuade some, if not many, survivors from reporting sexual misconduct because they simply cannot subject themselves to the retraumatization that would occur in that kind of hearing with cross-examination," Emerson College President Lee Pelton said at a news conference in Walsh's office Wednesday.

Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly said such cross-examination would "amount to, in essence, a mini-trial" that "may create a chilling effect, discouraging students who have experienced sexual assault from reporting it."

Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, joined the news conference as well.

Pelton said recently more colleges have adopted what is known as a single-investigator model.

"So rather than going before a jury, as it were, or a group," Pelton said, "you have an investigator, sometimes external to the college, who investigates what happens, interviews what we call the survivor and the respondent, and a whole host of other folks who might have some knowledge or have some useful input on this, including the credibility of both the survivor and the respondent, and then that report then is delivered to ... the decider, the person who makes the decision."

But critics say there have been problems with the single-investigator model.

"The single-investigator model ... is a star chamber," said former federal Judge Nancy Gertner, who's now a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School. "[It] is an enormously unfair model. It doesn't offer any protections to either side. It's not the way you get at the truth."

Others believe reform is needed to the system of adjudicating accusations of sexual assault on college campuses.

"There seems to be a presumption of guilt," said Stacey Ellen Ross, an attorney  currently representing a former Williams College student who was expelled after the school concluded the client had sexually assaulted another student. "My biggest concern when I hear about people objecting to the new regulations is: What kind of country do they want us to be living in where there's no presumption of innocence?"

Kelly also objected to proposed restrictions on universities from investigating sexual assaults that occur between members of a university, but off campus or outside of university activities.

"I see this as problematic particularly for an urban campus like Suffolk's," Kelly said. "Part of the urban nature of our institution means that many of our students are living off campus."

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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