Few Southeast students face suspension, expulsion for sexual assaults, campus paper finds
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.
Southeast Missouri State University suspended few students found to have committed sexual assault in the past five academic years, a six-month investigation by the Arrow campus newspaper found.
There also were no expulsions of any of the 16 students found to have committed sexual assault by the campus judicial system during those five years, according to school records obtained by the newspaper in early December through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Later in December, Southeast officials expelled a student for sexual assault, the Arrow reported.
But Deborah Below, dean of students and vice president of student enrollment and success, said Monday the student who was expelled was not one of the 16 but rather was involved in a fall 2016 case.
The five-year period covered by the Arrow ended at the close of the 2015-2016 academic year, Below said.
Southeast's student conduct process is a disciplinary process, not a criminal one, Below said.
The Arrow reported, according to university records, 11 of the 16 students found in violation of the code of student conduct received a "suspension held in abeyance" that allowed those students to remain on campus and continue going to class.
Three other students were suspended, and two others were placed on probation and received a written reprimand, the Arrow reported in a special eight-page section last week.
Student Kara Hartnett, digital managing editor for the Arrow, said she began investigating the issue in October after two members of a campus sorority told her they had been raped.
She said she later learned seven of 50 members of a single sorority pledge class had been raped.
Hartnett said the newspaper investigation showed few sexual assaults are reported at Southeast, and the perpetrators of sexual assaults receive little punishment from the university.
"I think the big thing was sanctions," Hartnett said.
Students on campus have been surprised by the lack of expulsions, she said.
Randy Carter, assistant dean of students, told the Arrow there had been several expulsions over the past five years.
But the Arrow investigation found the expulsions were for other offenses.
Carter, according to the Arrow, said an act must be "egregious and have no gray areas of evidence in order to warrant an expulsion of the accused."
However, in the student disciplinary process, a "more likely than not" threshold is needed to establish guilt rather than "beyond reasonable doubt" as is the case in the criminal judicial system.
Punishments, including jail time and status as a sex offender, are much more severe going through the criminal system, but the burden of proof is much higher.
The university also can require accused suspects to avoid their accusers, even rescheduling their classes or restricting what entrances/exits they may use.
But victims quoted by the Arrow said this doesn't always work on a small campus, and run-ins with their rapists make them feel unsafe.
Below said students who have suspensions held in abeyance are not receiving a slap on the wrist.
"Suspension held in abeyance is very serious in that the students must follow the code of conduct prescriptively or they will be suspended from the institution," she said. Any violation will trigger the suspension in such cases, not just sexual assaults, Below said.
"If you ask anyone, should someone who rapes another person be suspended or expelled from school? It makes sense that you would believe that would be the outcome," Below said.
But the incidents often are complex, according to Below. The university must consider the "preponderance of the evidence," she said.
In some cases, victims report the perpetrator "took it too far," but they are not wanting to see that person suspended or expelled, Below said.
"It is not the man in the bushes. It is probably someone she knows," Below said of sexual assaults of students.
Hartnett said anecdotal evidence shows many students who are victims of sexual assault do not report the incidents.
She said she has heard from victims of sexual assault, whose cases went through the campus judicial process, that the university is "not doing enough" when it comes to sanctions.
Along with the main sanctions such as suspension and expulsion, students found to have committed sexual assault may receive lesser punishments, ranging from $50 fines to community service or a requirement to attend a counseling program, the Arrow reported.
Hartnett said a student may face more than a $100 fine for an alcohol violation, which is more than the fine levied for a sexual assault.
But Below said the higher fine covers the cost of mandated counseling students receive regarding alcohol and drug violations.
A university committee is looking at recommending revisions to the university's policies for sexual-abuse cases. Below said she anticipates the recommendations will be submitted to university president Carlos Vargas-Aburto soon.
She said the university hopes to implement any changes for the start of the fall semester. Those changes could include higher fines, Below said.
Below said the university beginning in 2014 has focused more on educating students about the issue of sexual assault.
In spring 2015, Southeast revised its process for dealing with alleged violations of the student code of conduct, Below said.
The university created a new, three-member administrative panel to hear sexual assault cases. The board includes a student, and all three board members are trained specifically to handle such cases, she said.
"We now show a video about sexual assault prevention to parents at student orientations," Below said.
The university also continues to educate students, she said.
"I firmly believe that our students are the best resource in educating other students," she said.
As of this fall semester, students will be mandated to complete an online education module that deals with the issue of sexual assaults, she said.
Below and Hartnett agreed the Arrow articles have drawn greater public attention to the issue.
Hartnett said she has heard from a number of sexual-assault victims who praised the articles.
"It mainly has been real positive," she said.