Zero Tolerance of What?

University of Virginia's board adopts policy to show it is getting tough on sexual assault on campus, but critics point out the lack of any specifics.

November 26, 2014

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors on Tuesday unanimously committed to adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault – although the university hasn't figured out what zero tolerance means.

The university's current policy, adopted in 2011, states that sexual misconduct "will not be tolerated," but it does not take a zero-tolerance approach to punishment. And a draft of a new policy that had been circulating prior to the recent uproar includes a range of punishments for sexual assault, not all of which involve someone being forced out.

"The Board of Visitors adopted a zero-tolerance approach toward sexual assault at the university today," Anthony de Bruyn, a university spokesman, said. "The details of the approach and how it is articulated and implemented will be refined in the near term in collaboration with the university adiminstration."

The decision came during a three-hour emergency board meeting held about a week after the publication of a Rolling Stone article that detailed a gang rape at a U.Va. fraternity in 2012. While the meeting’s focus was ostensibly on how to change the campus culture surrounding sexual assault, much of the afternoon was spent specifically discussing alcohol abuse.

“We have to address the issue of alcohol consumption,” George Keith Martin, the board’s rector (or board chair), said at the meeting’s start. “There’s a clear correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual conduct.”

Stephen Long, a member of the board, said “alcohol abuse leads to sexual assault.” L.D. Britt, another member, said that alcohol might not be the actual cause of sexual assaults, but that “it is the fuel.” Board member Bobbie Kilberg suggested that police sweep through fraternities during parties and demand to see students' ID cards if they are drinking. Many of the board members urged fraternities to do something about excessive drinking within the Greek system.

Tommy Reid, the president of U.Va.’s Inter-Fraternity Council, pledged to ban hard liquor at fraternity parties, but said that the Greek system needs to do much more than simply no longer offer alcoholic punch. He also warned that banning alcohol from fraternities completely would just push drinking underground.

“Sexual assault is a serious cultural problem within fraternities,” Reid said. “It’s a product of attitudes, an unawareness of gender norms, and a lack of safety in our environment that we as students must commit to changing. Our university is in the wilderness right now. It's students on the ground level, not hiding from our inadequacies but confronting them, that will lead us out of this wilderness.”

Teresa Sullivan, president of U.Va., told the board that the university would improve its oversight of the Greek system. All Greek social functions are currently banned until at least Jan. 9, the start of the new semester and the system’s recruitment season. “The actions of even a single individual within a larger community do reflect on the community as a whole,” Sullivan said.

Long, however, warned the board against “throwing any organization under the bus” and ostracizing specific groups of students. “Yes, bad apples need to and must go, but we need to be very careful who is selected out and on what reasons,” he said. “The men and women in the Greek system are now wearing a scarlet letter around their neck.” The university must continue to be the “open academical village” that Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, intended it to be, Long continued.

In the crowd, a student held up a sign that read, “Sexual Misconduct: A Jeffersonian Tradition.”

Though less often, the meeting did also touch on how to address larger cultural and structural issues at the university outside of the fraternities, including how to encourage students to report cases of sexual assault and how to improve bystander intervention. Allison Cryor DiNardo, a board member, said it would require a concentrated effort to stigmatize sexual assault in a way similar to drunk driving. Tim Longo, the Charlottesville police chief, pleaded for any bystanders from the 2012 assault featured in the Rolling Stone article to come forward, and urged survivors to report incidents of sexual assault to police.

More concretely, Martin, the board's rector, said that the Virginia attorney general had hired a law firm to independently review the university's sexual assault policies. Sullivan said the university will create a new police substation, improve lighting around campus, and increase police patrols near fraternities.

“Alumni are telling me this problem is an old one and they say this is the time and the generation of students in which it must stop,” Sullivan said. “Let’s be a catalyst for change. Let’s do it here and do it now.”

Meg Gould, the student member of the board, suggested that the board make more of an effort to talk to actual students about sexual assault. Both Longo and Ashley Brown, a student involved in survivor activism on campus, said the emergency meeting was the first time the board of visitors had ever invited them to talk about student safety.

“We question whether or not the way our university and its structures function are promoting healthy sexual behaviors and preventing sexual violence,” Gould said. “Students are wonderful resources. These students in front of you today are wonderful resources. Even outside their leadership roles, they’re experts because they’re entrenched in this culture.”

Helen Dragas, a board member and former rector, said the university needed to toss out traditions that “chained” the university to its “embarrassing past.” Dragas recommended that the university withdraw from participating in the U.S. News and World Report and other college rankings while it focused on improving its methods of handling sexual assault. She suggested spending less money on advertising and more money on building resources for survivors and prevention efforts.

“It’s impossible to put into words the suffering victims and their families go through,” she said. “If we could get a sense of it, I don’t think we could sit here calmly today. But here we do sit and the buck does indeed stop with us. It is time to shatter some glass – ceilings, windows, doors. It’s time to give megaphones to voices that have been silenced and ignored.”

Dragas choked back tears as she spoke and was handed a tissue, but when the board later returned from a short break, the mood considerably mellowed.

The members joked about where and when to schedule the next meeting and frequently laughed. Ed Miller, a board member who participated in the meeting over the phone, soon interrupted, admonishing the board for its light tone. “If I were a student victim, I would be insulted,” Miller said over the phone. “This is a serious issue.”

DiNardo apologized on the board’s behalf, and said the meeting had the tenor of an “Irish wake” and no disrespect was meant. The board took its responsibility to address sexual assault seriously, she said. Shortly after, as if to demonstrate that seriousness, the board motioned to commit to a new zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault.

Some faculty reacted with incredulity to the board's decision to adopt a zero-tolerance policy without elaborating at all on what it means. In a web chat on the university's website, one faculty member questioned whether the board had thought through what such a policy meant. Another faculty member, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at U.Va., said he suspected the resolution would make people "feel like U.Va. actually changed something meanginful," even if it did not.

"I can't decide if it's a real policy or a fake one that would only serve to raise expectations and yield terrible embarrassment when the university finds it cannot meet such a standard," Vaidhyanathan said. "If it's a real policy, it forces a wide array of circumstances, victims' needs, and conditions into a single, simple, faulty algorithm. Nobody seems to know what 'zero tolerance' means in practice. I suspect it has no teeth to it."


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