SALT LAKE CITY — The general counsel for the Utah System of Higher Education raised the concept Friday of a designated hearing officer to conduct Title IX hearings on all public college and university campuses as an alternative to the current practice.
Most campuses have no designated hearing officer to conduct proceedings to determine whether a student has engaged in sexual misconduct, sexual assault or sexual discrimination, said Geoffrey Landward, assistant commissioner of policy and law. Nor do most schools have a designated hearing committee.
"These are often put together on an ad hoc basis, pulled from people on the campus and then they're brought together to hold these hearings," Landward told members of the Utah State Board of Regents, which met Friday at Snow College's Ephraim campus.
Attorneys that work for the institutions or assistant attorneys general advise hearing panels as they conduct the hearings. "That's kind of training on the go," Landward said.
Students accused of sexual misconduct have the right to be represented by advisers, including attorneys. Advisers can offer opening and closing statements on behalf of their clients and interrogate witnesses according to hearing procedures.
One option would be to have a trained designated hearing officer for the system of state colleges and universities who could travel to campuses, run Title IX hearings but leave the decisions to the institutions.
The hearing officer would ensure the alleged perpetrators' and victims' rights are protected "and when attorneys are participating, make sure the attorneys are under control. It's very difficult to do from what I understand," Landward said.
State lawmakers and government attorneys presently advising hearing panels are interested in the concept, he said.
"Maybe that will get some traction as we move forward."
Landward's comments came in advance of the regents considering proposed updates to the system's safety policy.
Some of the changes are codified in SB134, passed by the Utah Legislature during its general session earlier this year.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, requires that campuses have safety plans and publicize the steps they take to help victims and requires bystander training for more students.
The legislation also requires the Utah System of Higher Education to report on campus safety annually to the Utah Legislature's education and law enforcement and criminal justice interim committees.
Utah's public colleges and universities have campus safety plans to comply with the federal Clery Act, Landward said. The act requires institutions that participate in federal financial aid programs to maintain and disclose campus crime statistics and security information.
The revised policy adopted by unanimous vote of the regents also calls for reporting on institutions' increased efforts in the preceding 18 months about how they have improved serving victims and identifying future efforts the institutions expect to achieve in the upcoming 24 months.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said the University of Utah's campus safety website, safeu.utah, is a "good road map" for other institutions seeking information or guidance on campus safety.
"With the very tragic murder of Lauren McCluskey on our campus, we have had the difficult opportunity to very carefully examine our processes and our practices and personnel around safety and we've tried to be very open and very transparent about that," she said.
An independent review of McCluskey's killing on Oct. 22, 2018, and related safety issues resulted in 30 recommendations. The university has been very open about its weaknesses and actions taken to address those findings, she said.
"We are an urban campus. There are very useful lessons, I think, for all of us in terms of coordination and communication of information, of how we can learn from a very tragic event to be safer and better institutions. That's been our commitment," Watkins said.