Earlier this year, Trinity University and schools across the United States received a letter from the Civil Rights Office in the Department of Education informing them of recent changes to the interpretation of Title IX, including changes to the sexual assault policy that make it mandatory for the university to investigate all reports of sexual misconduct on campus.
Originally drafted during the Nixon administration in 1972, its original purpose was to remove gender discrimination in educational institutions.
The law reads, “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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
However, Title IX was almost exclusively applied to gender discrimination in athletics, largely the lack of women’s sports and female coaches. Under the Obama administration, the interpretation of the law changed to encompass nearly all activity involving or happening at an educational institution. The “Dear Colleague” letter sent to the university outlines the changes to the policy’s application, as well as the consequences if the university does not comply.
“With universities, you want to comply here because if you don’t, you could lose federal funding,” said Steven Bachrach, recently appointed Title IX coordinator and chair of the chemistry department. “We are a private institution, so we don’t get taxpayer’s money to build a building or fund a university, except that many of our students are getting federally funded student aid. Loss of that would be very harmful to the institution because it would mean that many of the students would not be able to attend Trinity.”
Aside from student federal aid, the university also receives federal grants for research, increasing the pressure to comply with the new demands.
According to Bachrach, very little will be changing to gain compliance except for the assignment of a Title IX coordinator and edits to the sexual assault policy.
“In particular, what was called out in the “˜Dear Colleague’ letter was that sexual assault is considered to be a discriminatory act,” Bachrach said. “If sexual crimes or misconduct occurs on your campus, that is viewed by the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights as being inherently discriminating.”
As Title IX coordinator, Bachrach will monitor Trinity’s compliance to Title IX’s new applications, as well as working with those who are discriminated against, even in the form of sexual assault. Under the new application, when survivors of alleged sexual assault or misconduct report to the university, Trinity now has an obligation to investigate the instance.
“People won’t be able to just say, “˜I am just reporting this. I am just telling you, and I want you to know who this person is, but I don’t want you to do anything.’ The law says we can’t handle it that way. We have to look into it,” said David Tuttle, assoicate vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
According to both Tuttle and Bachrach, pursuing alleged sexual assaults is a way to prevent sexual predators from harming more than one person.
However, some students remain concerned over the overall implications of the policy.
“The only conflict with the new Title IX changes that I have, personally, is that when someone goes to their RM and tells them about a sexual assault that happened, just to talk to someone, the RM has to tell [the administration],” said senior Kimberly Berry, coordinator for Students for the Advancement of Gender Equality. “There is no more confidentiality when a survivor comes forward.”
Berry, as well as another S.A.G.E. coordinator Lyndi-Paige Pyle, had been working with Tuttle before the Title IX changes were made to Trinity’s sexual assault policy.
“I think for a school this size, Title IX is probably pretty harmful. I was pushing to have more confidentiality and have it less to do with the school before Title IX came into play,” Pyle said. “I was trying to get it to be off campus and people on Trinity’s campus not to know and for faculty not to know. Now, Title IX has kind of pushed it in the opposite direction.”
Although there is concern regarding the confidentiality of the survivor in an alleged sexual assault, survivors can still contact the chaplain and counseling services with complete confidentiality, and the administration maintains that all investigations will be handled appropriately.
“This clarification to the regulation is just saying that you need to pursue things for the greater good, and we can do that without trampling on the individuals who come forward,” Tuttle said. “There is a very small, closed, tight-lipped circle of people who are involved when there is a sexual assault allegation, but we do need to know who is reporting what so that we are able to see if there are any patterns.”
Others are worried about the university’s obligation to investigate alleged sexual assaults will prevent survivors from reporting instances of abuse and misconduct altogether.
“Now with this change where we are compelled to investigate, we are worried that a rape survivor would not come forward at all now, so we would learn of even fewer sexual misconduct acts,” Bachrach said. “We are afraid that means that sexual predators could have even greater opportunities than what we have now, so the effect would be exactly the opposite of the intent of the law.”
Now that the federal mandate has been placed, both Berry and Pyle are currently working to change Trinity’s sexual assault web page, as well as work out details with the administration. Meanwhile, both Tuttle and Bachrach are taking steps towards finalizing policy changes.
“What we want is to not have any sexual assaults, but if we do have assaults, we want them to be reported so we can assist the survivors in the best way that we can,” Tuttle said. “We want to have a campus environment that has sexual safety as a very strong value that is supported by students and staff and faculty and the conduct board and our policies.”
In the future, Bachrach hopes to work with the administration and student groups to develop programs to help students be proactive and responsible in preventing sexual assault, misconduct and other similar behaviors.