Image Courtesy of Title IX For All
By Theresa Whitfield
Catholic University’s Office of the Dean of Students recently updated aspects of its Title IX proceedings in compliance with the United States Department of Education’s (ED) new regulations.
Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Every college that receives federal funding must comply with this law by having a Title IX coordinator. The Title IX coordinator also covers cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, and domestic violence.
The ED released new regulations for Title IX on May 6, which will go into effect on August 14. For the first time, these guidelines define “sexual harassment, including sexual assault as unlawful sex discrimination.” Every step of the Title IX investigative process will now have consistent protocol to follow. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos remarked that these “important safeguards” will “ensure a fair and transparent process” for the students involved.
“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” DeVos said.
The Office of the Dean of Students announced these updates to members of the university community in a town hall via Zoom. Title IX Coordinator Frank Vinik led the call and moderated the discussion, accompanied by Dean of Students Jonathan Sawyer and Associate Dean of Students Heidi Zeich.
One of the major changes included is the addition of cross-examination by the advisors. Previously, advisors only could ask questions indirectly through the hearing board, which would then decide if the questions were appropriate to ask the concerned party. Now, advisors will be able to directly cross-examine both parties involved, as well as any witnesses. Additionally, if a student cannot afford an advisor, the university will provide one.
Another change places greater emphasis on resolving cases informally. Informal resolution ranges anywhere from a talk with the two involved parties to formal mediation. In the town hall, Vinik stressed that any informal avenues would be completely voluntary and would only occur if both parties involved believe it to be helpful.
With the ED’s tightened definitions and regulations, the types of cases considered under Title IX are now strictly limited to events occurring on the university campus or those which are university-affiliated. Any off-campus occurrences, whether it be in an off-campus apartment or in another country during study abroad, are not covered by Title IX. However, any misconduct that occurs that no longer falls under Title IX will continue to be treated as a violation of the Student Code of Conduct.
Rileigh Thompson, a member of Peer Educators Empowering Respectful Students, or PEERS, specifically on its sexual assault awareness team, was very pleased that the the university worked to ensure that “the loophole of including sexual assault in the code of student conduct” and would still be able to address for acts of violence committed off campus.
While the ED’s new regulations throughout every step of the process will provide a transparent and uniform framework for handling cases of sexual harassment and assault, they will also undoubtedly extend the timeframe of an investigation. A typical process will take 60-90 days, however, various steps have been added, such as an additional ten days for students to respond to the results of the investigation and the approved presence of an advisor to any and all meetings. As a result, the goal of keeping within this timeframe becomes quite difficult to obtain. These new regulations and others, while implemented to improve the quality of the Title IX processes, will have the potential to inflict greater stress on the mental health of the students involved as a result of a long, drawn-out investigation.
With the announcement of these changes, Vinik made sure to emphasize that “report equals support.” Reporting will not directly trigger an investigation, but it will open up various support avenues. Options include no-contact orders, academic support, housing changes, weekly check-ins, and referrals to the counseling center.
Overall, the town hall received positive feedback from many of its participants in the form of comments left through Zoom’s chat function.
Thompson also observed the speakers’ choice to use the term “survivor” instead of “victim” when referring to an individual who has experienced sexual harassment or assault, a “mindful change in language” which she believes “really shows that the university supports survivors and wants to fight for them.”
When referring to the university’s role, Thompson remarked, “Of course they won’t ever be perfect, but we know they care and that’s important.”