Thursday, July 31, 2014

Belated response to Hopkins sexual violence policy reform petition

A few months ago, a Johns Hopkins student named Eliza Schultz drafted a petition (since endorsed by the SGA) proposing several reforms to the university’s sexual violence policies. When she walked up to me asking me to sign that petition one afternoon, I asked that she email it to me in full so I could read it and decide. She obliged. This is my response to her proposal:

“Hey Eliza, just got around to reading this - thanks for sending it and for having the ambition to spearhead change on an important issue. I agree with the first, third, and fifth bullet points enthusiastically and in their entirety (comprehensive definition, delineating the range of sanctions, and removing faculty peers from the disciplinary process). However, as you anticipated, I have some qualms in deciding whether or not to sign:

1. I’ve never heard of nonphysical violence before. I’ve heard of coercion, which is also a terrible and fundamental wrong. But some of your examples don’t seem to qualify as even that. Voyeurism should be illegal and severely punished, but to me, it’s a stretch to call it violent - maybe that falls under stalking? And prostitution is another thing entirely: a morally subjective personal choice that a lot of people think should be legal. Lumping pimps and peeping Tom’s in with rapists under the all-inclusive category of “sexual violence” confuses the debate by seeming to equate very different crimes. I will gladly join you in the fight against each of these things independently, but I won’t gloss over the differences between them.

2. I support requiring the perpetrator moving residences and changing courses - on the obvious condition that he or she has actually been found guilty of perpetrating, using whatever standard of evidence the university uses to ascertain guilt for any other alleged offense. If this is what you meant in your petition all along, great, but the way you word it makes me suspicious. You say “this should occur following an investigation by the University or police”, but don’t comment on how that investigation must conclude in order to warrant the requirement.

An investigation can have two statuses: it has ascertained that the person is guilty, or it has not yet concluded that. In which situation would the proposal make sense? If they’ve concluded the person is guilty already, he or she should be expelled and perhaps jailed anyway, making a housing change redundant. If they have not yet done so, it is unjust to punish them at all. I sympathize with how frequently the accuser is right in these situations, but no justice system worth its salt can levy punishment based purely on allegations - not for murder, not for child abduction, and not for sexual violence. So please clarify what you mean by this segment.

3. When I hear the term “zero-tolerance policy,” this is what comes to mind:


Zero tolerance policy for weapons: “In 2001, honor student Lindsay Brown parked her car in the wrong spot at her high school. A county police officer looked inside and saw a kitchen knife—a butter knife with a rounded tip. Because Lindsay was on school property, she had violated the zero-tolerance policy for knives. She was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to county jail where she spent nine hours on a felony weapons possession charge. School Principal Fred Bode told a local paper, "A weapon is a weapon."”

Again on weapons: “Four kindergartners—5-year-old boys—played cops and robbers at Wilson Elementary in New Jersey. One yelled: "Boom! I have a bazooka, and I want to shoot you." He did not, of course, have a bazooka. Nevertheless, all four boys were suspended from school for three days for "making threats," a violation of their school district's zero-tolerance policy. School Principal Georgia Baumann said, "We cannot take any of these statements in a light manner." District Superintendent William Bauer said: "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats."


You don’t have to support weapons or fighting to think that the enforcement of any policy labeled “zero-tolerance” sometimes gets out of hand. Can we pick different words to articulate the same concept? Maybe call upon the university to “immediately expel any student found to have committed a crime of sexual violence?”

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