On April 4, 2011, a “Dear Colleague” letter was sent from the U.S. Department of Education to universities across the nation. In this letter, the Department of Education included guidelines on how to handle reports of sexual assault and rape. These guidelines urged universities to change school policies on the punishment for breaking the rules during an assault, such as drinking or doing illegal drugs. The Department of Education, as well as the entire Obama administration’s hope, according to the letter, was to enable more students to come forward with their reports no longer fearing repercussions due to their own rule breaking. Harding administration took guidance in that letter and implemented a policy known as the Immunity Clause in 2016, which states that students who come forward with reports of assault or rape will not be punished for their own misconduct.
On Sept. 22, 2017, the newly-appointed Secretary of Education (Betsy DeVos) issued another “Dear Colleague” letter retracting the statements made by the previous administration. In her press release following the letter, DeVos stated that her decision was motivated by a desire for fairness towards both the accuser and the accused.
“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and issues head-on,” DeVos said in the press release. “But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
As a private institution, Harding is less affected by this retraction, as the university is able to create its own policies. The university has used guidelines given by the given by the Department of Education in the past, but has no plans to do so at this time, according to Dean of Students Zach Neal.
“Harding University follows the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education,” Neal said. “We will continue to conduct a fair, impartial investigation (into reports of sexual assault or rape) in a timely manner designed to provide all parties with resolution. … the university has no plans of changing (the current) policy.”
Harding also has a support group in place for survivors of sexual assault. That resource being SASSY (Sexual Assault Surviving Sisters You-nitied), sponsored by Stephanie O’Brian, director of academic resources. O’Brian is also one of the sponsors for HU Brave, a campus organization that aims to educate the Harding community on consent, sexual assault and rape.
“We need to educate people on what sexual assault actually looks like,” O’Brian said. “It is not often–actually quite rarely–a stranger in a dark alley with a knife. It is most frequently those closest to us: a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a close friend, a relative.”
O’Brian also said that, while she understands the desire to help advocate for the accused she believes that there are better ways to go forward, making sure both the survivor and the accused have safety in their academic institutions.
SASSY meets Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. Contact Stephanie O’Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 501-279-5929 for more information regarding the support group.