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Reform the disciplinary process

Observer Editorial | Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The University’s internal disciplinary process came under intense scrutiny last week in the trial of Abram Elam, the first of four former football players to be tried in connection with an alleged gang rape incident. The public testimony about graphic details of the incident, combined with the manner in which the University handled the situation, was not welcome publicity, and it exposed several policies the University should change to improve the handling of all disciplinary procedures.

A large area of contention was the advice residence life officials gave to the victim. The victim claims associate vice president for residence life Bill Kirk told her not to report the rape to the police. Kirk later denied this in his testimony, although he said he could have told her it would be easier to let the matter be handled internally.

To ensure there is no ambivalence in any future cases, University officials should carefully consider what verbal guidance they give to victims (written guidance is already clearly outlined in du Lac). University officials should be explicitly clear in providing a list of options available to a victim, including the possibility of seeking criminal prosecution.

The prosecutor pointed out that Kirk, a lawyer, did not take notes as the woman described the incident and he outlined her options for dealing with it. The fact that there is no official record of Kirk’s discussion with the victim allowed the defense attorney to contrast Kirk’s testimony to the victim’s as a way of attacking her credibility.

Kirk and other Student Affairs officials’ currently do not take notes when interviewing a victim and trying to ensure that the victim receives the support services she needs. This practice puts the victim more at ease, but does a disservice to the victim in the long run when the exact discussion cannot be recalled and the accuracy of the supposed discussion is called into question. Instituting a mandatory practice of taking notes whenever an official speaks to a potential crime victim would establish important records that would later be used in any investigation.

The University also needs to re-assess its policy for releasing statements made by a victim. During the trial, the lead investigator stated a copy of the victim’s report of the incident was found when police searched the house where the attack occurred. The University provided this report to the accused as part of the disciplinary process. But this routine procedure could have compromised the simultaneous police investigation. The victim’s statement contained information on physical evidence that might have been destroyed before police could execute the search warrant.

The University currently only halts its own internal disciplinary process if the accused is indicted. Instead, the University should suspend its own disciplinary process if the victim is considering pressing criminal charges until the proper authorities can gather evidence and statements.

Clearly, the public forum of a rape trial where the accused are former football players is far from a preferred source of attention for the University. But it should use the results of the Elam trial to improve its own disciplinary process to better handle any future allegations. The University has every right to discipline its students in the matter it sees fit. But it shouldn’t assume future victims will prefer its disciplinary system to the judicial process. It should ensure that its policies do not interfere with the judicial process or serve to damage the victim’s reputation in the future, if she chooses to pursue legal action.