ATLANTA ― People who report allegations of sexual misconduct at Georgia’s 29 public colleges and universities could have their attorneys involved in the process and so could the alleged perpetrators, under rules approved Wednesday by the university system’s governing board.
The rules also require university officials to determine whether it is “more likely than not” that a student violated policies. If university officials decide to suspend or expel the student, they must identify specific “substantial evidence” prompting that decision.
The Board of Regents ordered a statewide plan to prevent sexual violence in May rather than depending individual campus efforts, based on recommendations from an appointed committee of faculty, staff and students that began studying campus security issues in October 2014.
Since then, system leaders have been under increased pressure from state Rep. Earl Ehrhart to protect the rights of accused students.
Ehrhart, a Powder Springs Republican who chairs the House’s higher education budget panel, held a hearing this winter focused on sexual misconduct investigations at Georgia Tech, accused the school of violating students’ due process rights and warned university leaders that they needed to make changes or put requests for state funding at risk.
“If you can’t protect students, don’t come looking for money,” Ehrhart said as the January hearing ended. “Period.”
Ehrhart also recently suggested that Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson’s contract at the school shouldn’t be renewed this spring.
Kate Napier, a Georgia Tech junior who spoke to a Board of Regents committee on Wednesday, called Ehrhart’s remarks “bullying” and asked members to strengthen the policies. Napier, who also protested loudly during the full board’s vote later in the day, said she’s worried that the changes will discourage student reports of sexual misconduct.
“I am concerned that Rep. Ehrhart has now bullied you too,” she told board members. “When I look at the policy, I see an effort to make the reporting, investigation and decision-making process as cumbersome as possible.”
Higher education officials throughout the country have been pushed to do more in sexual misconduct cases by federal civil rights officials responsible for ensuring compliance with Title IX law. The law prohibits any sex discrimination in education, including sexual harassment or violence.
The rules adopted Wednesday allow both parties to an investigation to have an adviser or attorney present at every step. That person can’t ask questions during a formal hearing but can help a client draft questions to ask witnesses or other speakers.
An attorney also can advise a client about responses during the investigation, such as an initial written statement. The rules also lay out an appeal process and a petition process if a student feels the investigator assigned to the case is biased.
Gina Sheeks, vice president for student affairs at Columbus State University, told board members that the policies ensure all campuses meet the same standards. Sheeks, who served on the committee that studied campus security, said the policies represent “a balanced approach.”
“They will ensure that all of our parties receive fair treatment and appropriate support throughout what we know to be a very serious and emotional process,” Sheeks said.
The rules go into effect July 1.