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09/10/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2014

Students Demand University Of Kansas Stop Calling Rape 'Nonconsensual Sex'

A group of University of Kansas students on Tuesday demanded that the school toughen punishments for students found guilty of sexual assault and stop referring to rape as "nonconsensual sex."

The demands by the group of 50 students that calls itself September Siblings are included in a petition that calls for changes in how the school, in Lawrence, Kansas, addresses sexual assault. The students posted the petition online with a video featuring two anonymous survivors' stories, and helped promote a forum Tuesday evening on campus.

The activism follows a report by The Huffington Post that a student found responsible for "nonconsensual sex" was punished in the spring with probation and a ban from university housing. School officials wrote that community service wasn't appropriate as an additional sanction because it would have been "strictly punitive."

The victim in that case filed a federal complaint, prompting an ongoing investigation of the school by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The probe, which began in July, is among the U.S. government's investigations of sexual assault at 77 colleges and universities.

The September Siblings group's demands included an internal investigation by the provost’s office into the school officials handling sexual assault cases, and raising the minimum sanction for sexual assault and harassment so that it exceeds the punishment for plagiarism.

The list also calls for the school to change how it refers to sexual assault: "Elimination of the term 'non-consensual sex.' It is rape."

Advocates and experts said they agree with the students that the school should drop the term.

Many students said they didn't know the university was using the term until HuffPost reported it, said Liz James, a student and sexual assault activism coordinator of the campus feminist group Students United for Reproductive and Gender Equity.

"That was one of the things that really struck a chord with a lot of people," James said. "Calling it 'nonconsensual sex' really makes it seem like it's not as big of a deal as rape is, but that's what it is."

University spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said the chancellor and provost had "a productive meeting late last week" with student leaders and the dialogue will continue. She declined to say whether the university will agree to any of the student demands.

The petition also asks for increased sexual violence prevention training for all students. Current training lasts less than half as long as the online alcohol education for freshmen, and does not quiz students like the booze program does, according to acting student body president, Emily Halling.

The petition had more than 900 signatures by Wednesday afternoon, mostly people from Kansas.

Colleges and universities receiving federal funding, such as student loans or program grants, are required under the gender equity law Title IX to address sexual violence and harassment on campus, regardless of whether there is a police investigation. Though there is federal guidance recommending standards for adjudication and staffing, schools are free to decide how to investigate and punish sexual assault.

The U.S. Department of Education does not use the term "nonconsensual sex."

"The principle is that 'nonconsensual sex' is an offensive term," said Brett Sokolow, CEO of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. "I see that as minimizing or negating language, because there is no such thing -- 'sex' is consensual by definition. When you refer to it as 'nonconsensual sex,' you diminish the behavior."

Sokolow said colleges use the term "nonconsensual sex" in part because labels like "rape" or "sexual assault" may suggest extreme violence, which could lead administrators judging the cases to minimize assaults that occur under hazy circumstances. Sokolow's group -- a legal consultancy -- recommends "non-consensual sexual intercourse" or "sexual misconduct."

Others said those terms also avoid the issue.

"The idea that the term 'rape' needs to be called 'non-consensual sex' to be more palatable to college administrators signals that institutions are not ready to seriously confront rape and sexual assault within their campus community," said Tracey Vitchers, chair of the national group Students Active For Ending Rape. "Terms like 'non-consensual sex' minimize the severity of the act committed and serve to intentionally obfuscate the details of the violent incident in question."

The investigation the Kansas activists demand would target Nick Kehrwald, director of Student Conduct & Community Standards, and Jane McQueeney, the school's Title IX coordinator. McQueeney, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education's Kansas City Office for Civil Rights, handles sexual violence investigations at the university. Kehrwald determines sanctions.

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