Policy Change Deserves Scrutiny
Editorial Board | Sept. 30, 2011, 7:40 p.m.
On Sept. 22, Pomona VP and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum notified the student body of a federally-mandated policy change to the Student Handbook that will lower the standard of evidence required to find a student guilty of sexual misconduct. The standard has been changed from "clear and convincing" to "preponderance of evidence," which means that a student accused of sexual misconduct must only be proven "more likely than not" to have committed the violation to be found guilty. While this Editorial Board acknowledges that the federal mandate forced Pomona's hand in this case, we disagree with some students' praise of the policy change for two reasons.
First, the change in policy creates a new evidentiary standard for sexual misconduct cases that is inconsistent with the standards of evidence required for other policy violations. Sexual misconduct is a severe offense, but to create an entirely separate set of standards for proving guilt undermines the more stringent set of standards used for all other cases, and it opens the door to questions about consistency throughout the Student Handbook.
Second, and more important, the change represents a failure of Pomona’s judicial system to uphold the most valuable principle of this country’s legal system: presumption of innocence. The sanctity of this legal right, though not explicitly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, is ingrained in the American legal process through Supreme Court cases like 1895’s Coffin vs. United States and 1970’s In re Winship.
Sexual misconduct cases are grossly underreported, and proponents of this policy change hope that it will encourage more survivors to report cases of assault. While we recognize that questioning survivors during sexual misconduct investigations can be extremely painful, that does not warrant a complete revision of the legal rights upon which our school and country are founded.
Supporters of the policy change have praised it for eliminating evidentiary barriers that made it difficult to prove someone guilty of sexual misconduct. While efficiency in judicial decisions is important, we maintain that these barriers were put in place for a reason, and to celebrate their elimination is to discount the value of a legal right that lies at the heart of our democratic process.