October 25, 2014

Title IX compliance

On Friday I attended a required training wherein we (faculty and staff) were informed/reminded about our obligations under (the current interpretation of) Title IX. In case you've been hiding in a cave for the last few years (or decades), that's the law that states:

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.
(We also were reminded about the school's obligations under the Clery Act, but that wasn't as interesting and I won't be talking about it here.)

Most of the coverage about Title IX, especially before a year or two ago, tends to have something to do with sports programs; and in particular with making sure that colleges (and other schools!) provide equal access to athletics for female students. It's often cited as the reason that US women totally dominate the Olympics and other world sports competitions. But another big area of effect that Title IX has is on sexual assault and harassment: if female students are being harassed and assaulted and having to avoid certain classes or buildings or withdraw entirely, then they are ipso facto being denied the benefits of the education program. So the school, and by extension each employee, has Title IX obligations with respect to sexual assault and harassment.

I basically knew all that. I have to say, though, that I'm a little surprised at the extent to which this is taken. According to the presenters at the training (one a consultant from a company that does these trainings at various places, and the other the head of campus security), my obligation as an employee is to report to a Title IX officer any information that I have about sexual assault or harassment having to do with Longwood-affiliated people. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? There are two interesting consequences of this, both of which were directly confirmed in the Q&A at the end of the training:

  1. The obligation pertains even if the victim specifically asks me not to report it or tell anyone.

    Now, what may happen in this case is that after the Title IX report is filed, the campus police contact the victim, who declines to pursue a case or file charges, and it ends there. (Interestingly, and revealingly, the head of campus police referred to this situation as the victim being "uncooperative", which raises the question of who exactly the police are serving here.) Although they may also contact the alleged perpetrator to get their side of the story, which means that the victim may have reason to worry about retaliation---which is problematic to say the least.

    The other major probably-unintended consequence is that it means that a student who does not want to file a complaint will be unable to talk to any university employee about their problems (except for counseling services, who are the only non-mandated-reporters). That is unfortunate.

  2. The obligation also pertains off campus, to anything you hear even third- or sixth-hand, if any involved party is or might be Longwood-affiliated.

    You hear that? Since I live literally next door to Longwood students, if I witness or even hear about anything there I'm supposed to file a report with our Title IX officer. This would apparently also apply if I lived next door to Longwood faculty or staff.

    It's a surprising outcome, to me at least. Another audience member asked if he was supposed to be "snitching on" his neighbours if he heard something; the officer said, "no of course not, not unless your neighbours are Longwood students or staff or something like that." Which is a ludicrous thing to say, since a large percentage of Longwood staff live next to other Longwood staff---it's a small town---but I actually live next to Longwood students, as such. I raised my hand and clarified this, and he confirmed that yes, I should be reporting in if I witness anything there. So after clarification, his answer was really, "Yes."

Also interesting is that this all applies even to past conversations and events. It's not clear how much of the above is actually federally-required and how much of it is Longwood's CYA interpretation of the law; the head of campus police seemed to be saying the former, but a lot of us suspect it's more the latter. But at least until told otherwise, our job is to report anything, even hearsay, that involves, or might involve, sexual harassment or assault as committed by or upon anyone who is a Longwood student or employee. I guess if we all take that seriously and they decide we're overreporting, we'll hear back with more nuanced instructions.

EDIT: Discussion on Facebook about this post turned up the highly relevant article "Which matters more: reporting assault or respecting a victim's wishes?" from the Atlantic last year (thanks Jim).

EDIT again: Since nobody's discussing here anyway, I'll link to the FB post where a lot of the discussion is happening: the post is only accessible if you otherwise had access (i.e. you're FB friends with me), but that link should at least let you jump right there.

"I work on the assumption that Facebook is working by default to make me look like an asshole to everyone who's connected to me, because I've seen it do it to others." --John Scalzi

Posted by blahedo at 9:17pm on 25 Oct 2014
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