Penn changes procedures on handling sexual violence complaints

Students no longer will serve on panels hearing cases of sexual assault at the University of Pennsylvania, and faculty who are on those panels will get more training, under changes announced Monday.
A newly hired “sexual violence investigative officer” will receive all complaints, and those that he can’t resolve will go to a three-member panel of faculty members. Those faculty members will be drawn from a pool who will receive training when they are selected and again before they hear a complaint, the university said. Previously, the panels also included students.
Penn joins a growing number of schools around the country that have examined their practices in the wake of increased scrutiny over the handling of sexual assault and harassment on campus. More women are coming forward to lodge complaints, and men who are accused of assault in some cases are suing universities for disciplinary action taken against them. More than 90 universities around the country — Penn is not one of them — are under review by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual assault.
“We are trying to make this as fair and as impartial of a process as possible, said Joann Mitchell, vice president of institutional affairs at Penn.
The decision to no longer include students on the panels, she said, comes after consulting with experts, peer schools and Penn students who have had to serve on panels.
“It’s an extremely stressful process,” she said.
The university, she said, also wants to build a pool of expert panel members who will serve for a period of years, and that can be done more easily with faculty rather than students who are there for a limited time. The panels hear a few cases a year, she said.
The effort to professionalize the handling of sexual assault cases appears to be gaining momentum. Swarthmore College had turned to a retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice to oversee its cases. A task force at Pennsylvania State University earlier this month announced 18 to 20 proposed changes, including the hiring of an investigator and mandatory training for all employees. The task force also recommended a change in the hearing process. Victims and the accused currently must go before a panel of faculty, administrators and students – virtually a panel of strangers - and discuss what happened. Under the proposal, an investigator would conduct the interviews and submit a report to the panel for consideration.
At Penn, the changes — which take effect Feb. 1 — were announced late Monday afternoon by President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price in a memo to the Penn community.
They also announced that the university has hired Christopher Mallios, an attorney who previously worked in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, as the new sexual violence investigative officer. Mallios, who most recently was attorney advisor for AEquitas, a consulting firm providing training and support to prosecutors in issues of sexual violence, domestic violence and stalking, started work at Penn on Monday.
In the DA’s office, Mallios served for four years as chief of the office’s Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit and also was the liaison to the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Under the university’s new guidelines, Mallios will field complaints for all 12 of Penn’s schools. In the past, some schools had their own procedures for dealing with complaints.