October 10, 2019

The College of New Jersey is fighting sexual assault with an approach called restorative justice. The focus is not punishment, but healing.

On a bright afternoon in September, the College of New Jersey was buzzing with new-school-year energy. Students outside a dorm quizzed each other about history while another group played frisbee on a stretch of lawn. At Brower Student Center, a busy hub in the middle of campus, people gathered on low couches and at high tables, chatting, working on their laptops, texting — a whirlwind of connections and inside jokes taking form.

But up a flight of stairs, Chelsea Jacoby’s office was quiet. A fragrance plug-in from Bath & Body Works emitted a calming scent. A box of tissues sat on her desk, ready for students who might need it.

Jacoby’s office is where most people come when they want to talk about moving forward with a sexual misconduct complaint. It’s not just students. Faculty, staff, or anyone from the surrounding community can report assault, harassment, domestic violence, or other misconduct to the college Title IX office. The office calls these people “reporters”; accused people are referred to as “respondents.”

When a person reporting misconduct comes to Jacoby’s office, she shows the person a binder laying out their options. If students experience a crime, like sexual assault, they can always report it to police. But some forms of sexual misconduct — harassment, for example — are not always criminal in nature. And around the country, many college students prefer to report offenses to their schools rather than going through the criminal justice system, a process that can be traumatic for survivors and rarely leads to a conviction.

At TCNJ — as at other colleges and universities — reporters can pursue a Title IX investigation, in which school officials typically interview any witnesses, hold a hearing, and determine if the respondent should receive punishment like suspension or expulsion.

Survivors’ advocates see the process as an important option for students, especially given the failings of the criminal justice system. But critics claim it’s not fair to accused students, because it doesn’t require that allegations be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In recent years, the Trump administration has sided with those critics, and last year, the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed new regulations that, some say, will tip the balance so far in favor of accused students that survivors will stop coming forward.

But at TCNJ, people reporting misconduct have another option besides an investigation: what the college calls an “alternative resolution.”

The process is based on the principles of restorative justice, an approach that focuses on repairing the harm done to a survivor rather than on assigning punishment to a perpetrator. At TCNJ, the process starts with a question, Jacoby said: What would the perpetrator “need to hear, see, complete, or do, to recognize and acknowledge the potential harm, and for that to potentially be repaired?”

That looks different for every case. Several people accused of misconduct have undergone one-on-one workshops with a therapist designed to teach them about consent and healthy relationships so they’re less likely to harm someone else. In other cases, the accused student has undergone alcohol or drug education, learned about the neurobiology of sexual assault, or read an impact statement explaining how the other person was hurt by what happened.

These might seem to some like an accused person getting off easy, but the process was developed at the college partly because students reporting assault wanted an alternative to an investigation.

The results of alternative resolution, TCNJ officials say, have been overwhelmingly positive, both for reporters and respondents. “It was definitely not easy,” one reporter wrote in a feedback form, “but I finally got the closure I needed.”

. . .

Some are skeptical that a process like the one at TCNJ can ever be effective for perpetrators of sexual assault. Restorative justice may be appropriate for people who have made sexist comments and just need to learn how damaging such verbal harassment can be, said Michael Dolce, a lawyer who specializes in cases of child sexual abuse. But people who commit assault are different, he said.

“These sex criminals have a pathology that is rooted in accessing victims by deceiving, by convincing people that they are safe,” he said. And they often use “the exact same techniques to convince people that they’re truly sorry when they’re not.”

Though treatment for perpetrators of assault can be helpful, he added, it can take years to be effective, and perpetrators need to be removed from the community where they committed the offense. Restorative justice for perpetrators of sexual assault “sends the wrong message about who this person is, and it suggests that it’s relatively easy for someone to restore themselves to the community,” he said.

So far, TCNJ hasn’t gotten a report of repeat offense against anyone who’s been through the program. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 60 people came to the school’s Title IX office to report misconduct, Jordan Draper, the college’s assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, told me. Of those, just 17 were interested in moving forward with a formal process. Ten chose alternative resolution, and seven chose investigation.

. . .

Advocates say the rise in student activism, as well as the Obama guidelines and an uptick in Title IX enforcement by the Obama administration, led to significant improvements in schools’ handling of sexual assault and harassment. But underreporting remains a problem.

Nearly 80 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement, and the fact that 89 percent of colleges listed precisely zero incidents of rape in their campus crime statistics in 2016 suggests the crime is underreported on college campuses as well. Many fear that the Trump administration’s approach will erase the Obama-era gains and make the problem worse.

“Even with the much more supportive orientation of Obama guidelines, students were not coming forward,” Karp said. The new regulations “will just seal the deal on that,” he said. “I think any honest institution or Title IX coordinator or general counsel that says they truly want to support students needs to offer something else.”

To some degree, colleges may be forced to find creative solutions if the Trump administration regulations make their formal processes untenable. That’s not ideal — most anti-sexual-assault advocates agree a formal process has value, and don’t want to see it hobbled by the new Education Department regulations.

And not everyone believes restorative justice is the best solution to the problems the new regulations could create.

“It is obviously important for colleges and universities to pay close attention to any regulations,” said Dolce, the lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases, “but I also want them to recognize that those are baselines at best.” As a lawyer as well as a parent, he said, “if the baseline required by federal law doesn’t restore safety in the environment, I have a problem with that.”

But at TCNJ, at least, restorative justice isn’t a response to Trump. It’s about offering something survivors want.

Draper said she was inspired to develop the alternative resolution process at TCNJ by students who came to her saying, “I don’t want to move forward with a process, but I want this person to know that they did something wrong” and “can you tell them that so that it doesn’t happen again?”

Students reporting misconduct often “don’t want justice in that traditional way,” Miele said. “They want justice in that they can sit down, have a facilitated dialogue about what happened, get their questions answered, talk about the impact of the incident themselves. That’s what’s going to aid in their healing best.”

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