Title IX Takeback?

There are some things that every college student should know, regardless of what institution they attend: stay on top of reading assignments, don’t trust drinks mixed in buckets, and know how to utilize Title IX. This last point came under the spotlight when the Obama administration enacted  several changes on the federal level as to how the policy would be implemented on college campuses.

Title IX is a statute that prohibits sexual discrimination in any form and is enforced at any educational institution that receives federal funding, including, of course, Connecticut College. Most of the substantial changes to Title IX came over the course of the past ten years, the most significant of which came in the form of the federal Department of Education’s (DoE)  “Dear Colleague Letter” which provided guidelines on how institutions should handle their Title IX obligations.

The most significant alteration enacted by this document was that it explicitly detailed that Title IX is relevant not only to sexual harassment, but to all forms of sexual violence. By specifying this, the DoE aimed to ensure that all students would feel safe enough both to learn, and to report any instances of sexual misconduct should they occur.

Changes along these lines were generally aimed at making sure that institutions treated all reports of sexual discrimination or misconduct seriously, and as such were met with high praise from sexual assault prevention groups. Now, those same groups are pushing back against alterations being pursued by current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. They claim that these changes actively discourage students from reporting sexual crimes. One such organization, the youth-led “Know Your IX,” claims that DeVos’s announcement is tantamount to telling sexual assault survivors to “go away and suffer in silence.”

The changes DeVos has planned aim to, in her words,“treat all students fairly” and to make the process “fair and impartial.” To make Title IX more “fair” to everyone, DeVos has instructed that schools loosen up on how they treat those accused of sexual assault. Devos’s changes will require institutions to present more evidence against the accused: in the past, preponderance of evidence was needed, meaning that the evidence provided simply had to be convincing. Now, Title IX cases will require enough evidence to satisfy the “clear and convincing” standard, which dictates that more evidence be provided in order to be convincing. In addition to this, schools no longer have to resolve Title IX disputes within sixty days and can use mediation and other “informal” means of resolution.

Of course, this is going to have a profound effect on college campuses across the country because, even though it will take many months to write the new legislation, interim measures have already begun to roll out and affect schools. Though it is important to know what is going on at the federal level in regards to this issue, it is just as vital to keep in mind how one’s community will be affected. Here at Conn, there has certainly been a notable reaction to DeVos’s announcement.

Indeed, the very day of DeVos’s speech, Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron emailed a message to the student body insisting that regardless of changes to federal policy, Conn will “educate community members about sexual assault, provide robust support to survivors, and ensure that our policies and procedures are fair to all parties.” It is worth noting that this statement is rather vague in how any of those things will be accomplished or changed along with Title IX.

Whatever stance the Conn administration takes on this matter, however, it may have some trouble actually backing up the talk for one simple reason: Conn currently lacks a Title IX coordinator. Melissa Pierce held that position previously, but she departed at the beginning of this year due to that fact that she was working full-time hours and receiving payment for a part-time job. In her absence, John McKnight, the Dean of Institutional Equality and Inclusion, has taken up the title of Acting Title IX Coordinator.

“What started as a fairly concise statement about the need to ensure gender equity in education has, quite appropriately, been broadly interpreted to include all forms of sexual violence and misconduct” explained McKnight in regard to Title IX. He is well aware of the changes that the Department of Education is enacting to the statute, but he does not believe them to be needed. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to engage in continuous improvement,” he said,  “but I take issue with the notion that the respondents in these cases should somehow take priority over survivors.”

McKnight is dedicated to handling the duties of Acting Title IX Coordinator as effectively and fairly as he can. In addition to him, Dean Sarah Cardwell and Eva Kovach are the Deputy Title IX Coordinators at Conn, and they will be assisting him in this responsibility until the position is filled more permanently. When asked about the lack of a designated coordinator, McKnight assured that the College is “currently in the process of interviewing candidates.”

Besides McKnight, Kovach, and Cardwell, there are other employees on campus who deal with Title IX. Director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Advocacy Heidi Freeland-Trail, for example, is deeply familiar with Title IX.

“Her speech was very, very skewed and very misinformed,” said Freeland-Trail of Devos’s announcement, “for [DeVos] to take that stance was really troubling and, I think, irresponsible.” The stance in question is the notion that there needs to be more protection for students who are accused of sexual misconduct, which was one of Devos’s main reasons for changing the enforcement of Title IX.

However, Freeland-Trail insists that these changes aren’t necessary. To her, Title IX is expressly about respecting the rights and the safety of potential survivors of sexual assault or discrimination. She believes that the push to further protect the accused stems from a belief that false accusations of sexual assault can be easily filed under the current statute in order to sabotage a student’s career. According to her, though, “this notion of false reporting…it’s just not real.”

Regardless of the changes currently shaking up Title IX, Conn students can continue to expect a certain level of respect and understanding when it comes to cases involving this statute. “Reverting back to [how cases were treated] twenty years ago, that’s not going to happen in my mind,” assured Freeland-Trail. McKnight echoed this sentiment, saying, “We know that supporting people who have been involved in these cases is the right thing to do, whether or not we are required to do so.”