Despite the precarious condition of Title IX under Trump, university remains optimistic

Melisa Soysal
Courtesy of Melisa Soysal
The university has taken steps forward in preventing and raising awareness for sexual assault.


Just one month after President Donald J. Trump announced that April 2017 would be Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, the House of Representatives voted on a new health care bill, which would potentially include sexual assault as a pre-existing condition.

This comes just five months after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos dodged questions on the continuation of Title IX guidance, and four months after the Trump administration issued a letter to all the nation’s school districts that effectively withdrew Title IX federal protection for transgender students.

“When you have Betsy DeVos saying that this is not a priority, and then you have the possibility of the dismantling of resources…it really does take the pressure off of institutions to move forward,” Marie Laberge, an assistant professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies said. “It is absolutely true that it is not enough to just empower people, you need to provide them with access to resources and legal protections…we see this new administration dismantling that, not just taking apart the potential resources, but actually potentially targeting some of those very efforts. You see the significance of politics and who is in power and how the access to resources can be destroyed.”

The Title IX process, which is part of the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI), handles complaints related to sexual misconduct at the university. If Sue Groff, the Title IX coordinator for the university, determines that a case has enough evidence to move forward, an investigation will be launched and any relevant information or documentation will be collected to build a case.

“Title IX is a federal piece of legislation that prohibits those that receive federal funding from discriminating based on sex,” Groff said. “It means that in our educational programs, our facilities, our employment, our recruitment, our admissions, we can’t discriminate based on sex. Sex discrimination is defined as sexual harassment, which is further defined as sexual violence.”

She explained that the entire process is handled by the investigators and that the parties involved do not interact with each other at any point.

A Title IX complaint is separate from filing a police report. A Title IX complaint advances directly to politically appointed staff working under Trump. Filing a report is not mandatory, and students who decide against filing a report are not penalized.

“We would like them to report so they can learn about their rights and their resources and the things that are available to them,” Groff said. “That doesn’t always necessarily equate to investigating a matter of those prohibited offenses. We want to make sure that if they’re struggling with something, they’re connected with resources and they get the help that they need, that they’re informed about their rights within our policies, possibly reporting to law enforcement.”

Barack Obama’s presidency witnessed “an expansion of protection and resources,” which was a “culmination of pushes on the part of social movements and groups to ask the [Obama] administration to be accountable,” according to Laberge.

On April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education reinterpreted Title IX as granting the federal government the authority to prescribe the specific procedures that colleges must use to adjudicate student-on-student sexual assault allegations, by means of the “Dear Colleague” letter.

“[The Dear Colleague letter] was done intentionally, because universities were not doing their due diligence on this issue,” Laberge said. “The letter was a very strong suggestion…this is what kicked universities into creating programs, and really clarified the work of a Title IX coordinator.”

In May 2014, the OCR released a list of higher education institutions under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints. The leading goal of Title IX investigations were to guarantee that the campus was in accordance with federal law, which demanded that students are not denied the ability to participate fully in educational and other opportunities due to sex.

The university was one of the higher education institutions under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for how it handled sexual violence and harassment complaints. The case was opened in May 2014 and is currently listed as active, signalling that the case has yet to be resolved by the university.

In 2015, the university released the first-ever sexual misconduct survey, aiming to better illuminate the issue of sexual misconduct at the university. The results, which were released in 2016, propelled the creation of localized, university-specific programming, such as the kNOw MORE campaign. The primary goal of the kNOw MORE campaign is to educate students on the sexual misconduct policy of the university.

Adam Foley, the program coordinator for OEI, explained that one of the recommendations that rooted from the survey was for there to be a campus-wide campaign to address the issue of sexual misconduct.

Despite the gravity of “some question marks moving forward” concerning the new administration, Joanne Sampson, co-chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention & Education (SAPE) Committee, said she remains optimistic.

“It is my sense that students are actually, in the last few years, more aware of their rights, a little more aware of their resources and maybe a little more aware to report…there has been movement in a positive direction,” she said.

In light of potential “obstacles and challenges,” Sampson credits the ability of student leaders to harness on-campus momentum and support for the issue of sexual misconduct, calling the movement towards greater understanding of sexual misconduct at the university, a “pandora’s box.”

Sampson’s belief of a “silver lining,” that more people are embracing the movement toward a greater understanding of sexual misconduct at the university, agrees with the perspective of Laberge, who believed a lot of people in the periphery, who have never considered themselves political, will begin to contemplate the perilous condition of feminism, and women, as a whole, under the Trump administration.

Harry Lewis, who serves as an It’s On Us campaign student advisory committee member, said that the first-ever It’s On Us rally at the university on May 4, happened during an “interesting political moment.”

According to Lewis, the It’s On Us campaign is a registered non-profit organization. Effectively, the campaign is “separate from any administrative changes,” but without legal or federal standing, the campaign may lose the spotlight it experienced under the Obama administration.

But Lewis remains optimistic, remarking that the student activism, public support and “seeing all the students around the country,” cannot be reversed.

“I have seen such a huge shift on the part of students and administration, really wanting to change that [rape] culture and acknowledge its existence,” Lewis said. “But there is still a lot more to do.”

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