Peers Hit With Title IX Inquiry

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Peers Hit With Title IX Inquiry

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By Hannah Bristol

Sexual assault on college campuses made national news last week when Tufts University was found noncompliant with Title IX for mishandling complaints of sexual assault. In the wake of this finding, the Department of Education released a list of the 55 schools currently under investigation for such violations, including Amherst College, Harvard University and Dartmouth University.

Title IX bans gender discrimination on campuses and, along with the Cleary Act and the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, dictates federal guidelines for college response to sexual assault. In the wake of a Dear Colleague Letter released by the Office of Civil Rights on April 4, 2011, colleges have been revising their sexual assault response policies to meet such regulations to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence. The guidelines, however, are murky, and in recent weeks, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has been working to clarify what is expected of colleges.

“A lot of folks are doing their best and trying to follow the spirit of the law, but we don’t have a lot of guidance on Title IX, and we only find out what not to do when another school does that thing and gets called on it,” said Director of Health and Wellness Barbara McCall.

While a school’s appearance on the list does not mean they are not compliant, Tufts student John Kelly ’15 has seen the failures of college sexual assault policies and doubts the compliance of many schools. Kelly is the Special Projects and Events Coordinator for “Know Your IX,” a campaign that aims to educate students about their rights under Title IX.

“I’ve worked with students from about a dozen of the 55 schools at least [through “Know Your IX”], and I would not be surprised in the slightest if all of the schools I’m working with are found out of compliance as well,” he said. “In fact, I would be pretty surprised if they were found in compliance.”

At Tufts, student outrage led to a protest outside an administrative building last Thursday, May 1, when students held a rally and encircled a building in which 12 students, including Kelly and Olivia Carle ’17, met with administrators to negotiate their reentry into the Title IX voluntary resolution.

“The police officers watching over us said we hadn’t had something this big since the ’80s,” said Carle. “Someone said the protestors could ring around the administrative building three times.”

As a result of these negotiations, Tufts acknowledged the findings of non-compliance and agreed to hire a Response and Resource Coordinator. Administrators will continue to discuss the Title IX findings with the OCR in Washington, D.C. this week.

“Tufts has not looked good recently, and I think this is serving as a warning to other schools to take sexual assault seriously, to take our students seriously, and that there are real impacts when they find schools out of compliance,” said Kelly.

Kelly and Carle both think this should serve as a wake up call for other colleges.

“The idea of waiting for the government to find you compliant is such a backwards way of looking, and if a school hasn’t had that big moment yet, now is the time to really take the bull by the horns and make changes so it doesn’t come to that,” said Kelly.

“For me, this kind of noncompliance with Title IX is almost an epidemic among colleges,” said Carle. “Do I think that there’s a long way to go? I think we both [Kelly and she] do… but I think there might be more organization and more solidarity between students trying to fight this non-compliance with Title IX.”

For Middlebury, which is not under investigation, the media buzz around sexual assault provides an opportunity for reflection, although many of the College’s policies are already leading the field. One noteworthy recognition of the College’s commitment to sexual violence prevention was a $272,528 grant from the Department of Justice received this fall.

“Middlebury has been active in national conversations about best practices and legislative initiatives in this area for many years,” wrote Human Relations Officer Sue Ritter and Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life Karen Guttentag in an email. “While we are still reviewing the fine points of the White House Task Force report, the recommendations are consistent with many of our current practices as well as the initiatives that we are pursuing with the assistance of the Office of Violence Against Women grant.”

This consistency is due to a history of thoughtful engagement on sexual assault in the administration. Even before some of the existing guidelines were in place, the College was reviewing its policy. The College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, which was introduced in the fall of 2011, has been recognized as a model for others by national experts in the field.

“I’m really new to the community — this is only my first year — but one of the things that drew me to the community was the really thoughtful approach that the College has taken on sexual assault,” said McCall. “The institution was really working on making sure our policies and our procedures reflected best practices before national mandates started coming down the pipeline.”

A hallmark of this system is our judicial process, which uses the single investigator model, called “promising” by the White House Task Force, to eliminate in-person hearings and ensure that students do not need to tell their story more than once and to multiple people with the hope of alleviating some of the stress of this process.

“While we continue to fine-tune our policy each year, we feel confident that our approach is the most fair, compassionate and effective way for us to respond to sexual misconduct complaints,” wrote Ritter and Guttentag.

However, Sarah Boyd ’14, an organizer with It Happens Here (IHH) has qualms with the existing system.

“The investigators have already made up their minds when they present the situation, and their job is to investigate and to find the facts, but in that way, you don’t have someone rooting for both people,” she said. “That’s something that’s really lost in our system.”

But other students speak positively of this system, including Sexual Assault Oversight Committee (SAOC) chair Jordan McKinley ’14.

“I think our community judicial board and our policies are very fair,” said McKinley. “It makes an issue that is always complicated and very messy a little more cut and dry when  you can say, ‘this didn’t turn out the way I wanted, but I see why because of the policy.’”

“Of course there still are a lot of problems where when you think about how many stories are submitted to IHH and how few of those go through the judicial process,” said Katie Preston ’17, a member of IHH and SAOC. “It’s not a perfect system, but Middlebury is working very hard to be there.”

One place the College could improve, as suggested by students interviewed by the Campus, is programming during first-year orientation. McCall will be working with MiddSafe advocates over the summer to develop programming about sexual assault prevention, including bystander intervention and defining consent, as well as optional programming about sexual education for the incoming first-year class.

“We plan on upping the ante on a lot of awareness in the next year,” said Jackie Voluz ’14, a MiddSafe advocate. “We’re being compliant for sure… but there’s always room for improvement and constant consideration of survivor’s needs.”

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