After recent pressure from state lawmakers and federal investigators, the University of Hawaii has updated its policy on how it handles incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl told Civil Beat that the UH posted the new policy on its website Monday. But UH officials failed to inform him and others until a day later that the policy had become public.
In an email sent to students, faculty and staff on all 10 campuses Tuesday night, UH President David Lassner said the updated sexual violence policy is to insure a safe environment at the university and to show that the UH has zero tolerance for gender violence and harassment.
The release of the new policy comes as the university is under increasing scrutiny from Hawaii lawmakers and federal investigators to update and improve how it handles incidents of domestic violence, sexual harassment and the sexual crimes of assault and rape.
The UH last updated its sexual violence policy in 2006.
The University of Hawaii has new policies on sexual violence and harassment: zero tolerance.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Meisenzahl says updates to the policy were prompted by new mandates in the VAWA reauthorization act of 2013, not because of the compliance investigation by the U.S. Education Department. Meisenzahl says UH has been working on the new policy for almost 18 months.
UH law student Khara Jabola-Carolus says after reading the new policy, “It’s laudable but my question is why did it take so long and why only when the university was under pressure did it begin to walk the talk?”
Jabola-Carolus said she was also disappointed students from William Richardson Law School at UH were not consulted when the UH was drawing up the new policy.
“There have been sexual assaults at the law school. We have a vested interested in campus safety yet we were not consulted when the policy was crafted.”
UH spokesman Meisenzahl says the university got in touch with student groups when drawing up the policy including graduate student groups. “ The law school students are considered graduate students and are represented by graduate groups,” says Meisenzahl.
In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, UH Manoa reported eight forcible sex offenses on campus and in off-campus residence halls, and in 2012, there were 11 incidents of forcible sex offenses. In 2011, UH Manoa reported 12 forcible sex offenses.
Attorney Catherine Betts, the executive director of the Hawaii Commission on the Status of Women, says she is glad the university has finally released the new policy, but she wishes more community groups dealing with sexual violence and its aftermath could have been included in making the changes.
The federal investigation of UH, led by the U.S. Department of Educationʻs Civil Rights Office, helped spark the new policy. The on-going federal review is to make sure the UH and 55 other colleges and universities are in compliance with new sexual violence reporting, education and discipline requirements mandated by amendments to Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act.
Catherine Betts, executive director Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, applauds the new UH policy.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
In its updated policy, the UH has adopted what is known as an affirmative consent standard to more clearly define what constitutes sexual violence.
That is exactly what lawmakers have been pushing the UH to do in two separate bills (House Bill 451 and Senate Bill 387) advancing this session, which threaten to remove state funding from the UH unless it adopts an affirmative consent standard.
The state Commission on the Status of Women, the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus and the Hawaii Women’s Coalition support the affirmative consent bills. All three groups fault the UH for underreporting sexual assault cases and downplaying the seriousness of sexual misconduct on its campuses.
“In our university, sexual assault is underreported, mishandled and too often swept under the rug for the system to save face,” said Ann Freed of the Hawaii Women’s Coalition Tuesday in testimony in support of an affirmative consent bill.
Supporters of the UH’s updated policy say it offers a less ambiguous definition of affirmative consent than found in the 2006 policy.
It states “…ʻaffirmative consent’ means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement by both parties to engage in sexual activity.”
Attorney Betts says an affirmative consent standard is particularly important when considering national news stories about sexual assaults, which occurred after victims were intoxicated or drugged. And she says it is consistent with Hawaii law, which states an incapacitated person is incapable of consenting.
Betts called the UH’s updated sexual violence policy a step in the right direction but she says it could be made more robust by making clear throughout the policy that it is victim-centered.
Betts also finds wording in the affirmative consent standard overly legalistic. She says affirmative consent should be explained in every day language students can understand.
Rep. Linda Ichiyama of the Women’s Legislative Caucus applauds the new policy for its detailed definitions of the different kinds of sexual violence.
“Who at the UH will make sure the policies are carried out?” — Nanci Kreidman, Domestic Violence Action Center
Ichiyama says, “It also lays out in more detail remedies and sanctions that must be imposed when sexual violence occurs.”
The new UH policy also addresses how domestic violence will be handled when there are reports from students, faculty and staff.
Nanci Kreidman of the Domestic Violence Action Center, says the new policy has many helpful provisions but “who at the UH will make sure the policies are carried out and how will the UH pay for all of this to happen? Also how will it adequately let students know where to go when they have complaints?’’
The UH says it plans to spend money on the issue. It supports a bill in the Legislature for $1.1 million dollars to set up a separate office and staff to insure the UH is in compliance with all federal mandates addressing campus sexual violence.
UH spokesmn Meisenzahl says if the Legislature fails to approve the appropriation, that the UH will use tuition funds to make sure the new operation is funded.
Meisenzahl says the policy is not set in stone. “It is an updated policy that will continue to be updated, “ he says.
Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.