Did We Fail Our Students as a Title IX College? How We Are Working to Improve

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At the end of March, Dean of Students Leonard Brown sent an email to campus containing the results of the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Student Conduct and Title IX Report. The section entitled ‘Title IX/Sexual Misconduct Report: Fall 2014’, reported the instances of potential sexual misconduct-which includes sex or gender based harassment, sexual assault and rape. The report claims that 37 inquiries were made directly or referred to the Title IX coordinator. Of those 37, 22 were informally resolved, meaning they did not go through the conduct hearing process, but rather, as the report refers to it, ‘through a remedies-based, non-discipline process’, and 13 were ‘unresponsive to the Title IX Coordinator’s requests to assist, involved unknown respondents or third parties, involved anonymous complainants, and/or proceeded as far as possible given the limited information.’ and could not be pursued further with the limited information. One of these complaints was for an instance of on-campus, non-consensual intercourse and 5 more were for on-campus, non-consensual sexual contact. Only one complaint was resolved formally.

When I read these findings, what I am struck by are those 13 unresolved cases, reports that came to no sort of conclusion. At least one them, from the wording of ‘on-campus, non-consensual intercourse’, a rape here at our college, had evaporated because the necessary information to resolve the complaint, formally or informally, couldn’t be attained. It’s a jarring thought that 13 people whose complaints came to Title IX for some kind of help or resolution were not given what they came forward for. I understand these things happen for a variety of reasons that are not all within the office of the Title Ix Coordinator’s control, but this number, coupled with the single formally resolved complaint, the outcry over the failure of the all student mandatory sexual misconduct training, the results of the November 25, 2014 Public Safety forum and a Spring 2014 Climate Assessment Survey of sexual misconduct on campus lead me to believe that we as a college failed to maintain a community where students can receive an education free of the fear of sexual harassment and violence.

Title IX appears so frequently in our vocabulary as students at this school, in emails and conversations about gender quality on campus. But for complete clarity, Title IX is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, enacted into law by the US Congress. The Title IX portion of the amendments states the following, that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”. This means that people of any gender are entitled to the same educational rights. Sexual misconduct falls under Title IX because it is maintained and generally accepted that facing the threat of or experiencing non-consensual sexual contact or harassment violates that right to an equal education, because living with such a threat is a serious impediment to a person’s quality of life and physical and mental well being, and thus their ability to succeed in an academic environment. I want to mention to that Title IX is meant not just to protect students from sexual violence, but to ensure their rights to non-gender specific regulation in every aspect of their education.

At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a Title IX coordinator is the appointed overseer of Title IX policy and violations. Their job, as described on the official college website www.smcm.edu, is to ‘oversee all reports of sexual harassment, sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence.’ What this means, from my interpretation, is that all cases of sexual misconduct, and the coordination of SMCM’s peer health network and student help network for such cases, ‘SMART’, are supposed to be processed by the Title IX and Deputy Title IX coordinator. This position has been designated so that there is an official channel that is trained and dedicated to handling this kind of misconduct, the nature of which makes reporting intimidating, difficult and often traumatic. This school year, we had a Title IX coordinator for two months before Kristen McGeeney, the former Title IX coordinator left her position. For five months, reports of sexual misconduct have been going through the office of human resources. I have no doubt Human Resources has taken these complaints very seriously and done their utmost to ensure they have been handled properly, and a new title ix coordinator, Michael Dunn, has been appointed. But in having this position remain empty for so long, we deprived ourselves of that singularly dedicated resource, of an officer whose chief responsibility would have been ensuring resolution and making sure students received the proper assistance.

Linked to this is the failure of the attempt at campus-wide sexual misconduct training. In the Fall of 2014, it was decided that before students would be allowed to register for their classes, they must take a mandatory sexual misconduct awareness course online, through a program called CampusClarity, or otherwise attend an in-person session. This option was appealing, because it ensured that every enrolled student for the following semester would have contact with student title ix training. The problem with this training was that there were several questions in the course of this training that polled students for information about their personal conduct. without any option to decline to answer. Because the training was mandatory to enroll, some students answered these questions against their better judgment, opening up the training to an IRB investigation. This mistake was not only a serious violation of student rights, but also appears to have negatively impacted the push for all student sexual conduct training, which has not been discussed as a possibility moving forward since the incident. Incoming sutdents will continue to receive programming on sexual misconduct, but no regular, mandatory training will continue to emphasize the importance of clarity and respect in sexual situations.

Finally, my concern is that is spite of the fact that the Title IX is meant to be the primary designated source for the handling sexual misconduct on campus, a survey from SPring of 2014 suggests that the student body is not aware of how to utilize the Title IX coordinator as a resource. The survey indicated that only 5.18% of students who responded were ‘very likely’ to go to the Title IX Coordinator as a resource and that 45.82% of respondents were unaware of how to contact the Title IX coordinators. At least 6)% of respondents listed that a reason they would be ‘very likely’ not to report sexual misconduct on campus was the fear that reporting sexual misconduct will not solve anything. This report indicates that there may be a significant number of students who do not know how to use our chief officer for the handling of sexual misconduct.

All of these problems, I contend, contribute to an atmosphere of mistrust in how seriously the administrations takes sexual violence against the student body. The effectiveness of our sexual misconduct resources is seriously compromised by the problems within what should be our most dogged resource in the handling of sexual assault and harassment. I’m afraid my conclusion is that the 37 people whose complaints came to the Title IX coordinator may very well have been entitled to more, as well as many others who chose not to report.

In spite of this, I truly do believe our staff is taking these concerns seriously and working to improve. Recently, the administration sent out a sexual misconduct climate survey to be better informed about the student’s impressions of the handling of sexual misconduct on campus. I think this is a vital step in the right direction, and will hopefully give way to major changes that will make reporting more frequent and effective.

To make sure this happens, it is my hope that students will continue to give administrators their feedback, to be persistent in their demands for a better functioning Title IX, for the safety of ourselves and all on this campus we care about.

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