According to the Brookings Institute, it’s said that around 20% of female undergraduate students will be victims of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during their college career, while 4-6% of all male undergraduate students will be victims. This data shows that statistically, one in five female undergraduate students and around one in twenty male undergraduate students will be sexual assault or sexual misconduct victims. If these alarming numbers are true, then the structures in place to protect and help students after they experience such violations must be strong.
On college campuses, one office that is designated to help victims of sexual misconduct is the Title IX office. Title IX requires schools to protect against sex discrimination in education. To protect equal access to education, schools are federally required to, “prevent and respond to reports of sexual violence.”
The issue is that in modern times, the Title IX office has been put into an unnecessary role as “investigator” when they should truly only be there to support the student recovering from a sexual assault, misconduct or harassment and help them return to their education. The University and the public safety officers should not have to play detective in order to seek out if the story is true, they should provide any support the student needs as quickly as possible, because often, the Title IX office might be the only support the student will receive.
Of female undergraduate students who experience sexual assault or misconduct, only around 20% of female college students actually decide to report the incidents to the police. Further, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, commonly referred to as RAINN, if a student does file a report with the police, only 28 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults will lead to a conviction.
If the criminal justice system fails a student, then the Title IX office is supposed to step in to help. This is especially true if both the victim and the accused are students at the same university. In theory, the university can step in and issue No-Contact orders, academic accommodations, dorm transfers and even counseling services faster than the police will be able to act.
Fairfield University states that they “Ensure that: Survivors are provided with clear information and support. The accused are held accountable. Prevention education is provided to all staff and the student body on an ongoing basis. Professional staff treat complainants with dignity and respect, with the intent that re-victimization does not occur during the process.”
The University further states that “If reasonably available, complainants will be afforded the opportunity to request immediate on-campus housing relocation, transfer of classes, or other steps to prevent unnecessary or unwanted contact or proximity to an alleged assailant. The provision of such accommodations does not constitute a determination of responsibility, but rather is offered to assist the complainant.”
The tricky thing about Title IX offices is that they operate within a university. Thus, the question becomes, “If I’m a student reporting misconduct to someone that works at the university, will it be me or the university that’s protected at the end of the day?”
This is the same train of thought that leads court cases involving police to move to different districts for investigations or why external groups step in. There needs to be someone to step in and protect the student first, as often the argument for the University not stepping in is that the report might be false and that the University’s role should be more investigative than anything. But, in actuality, just 2%-10% of all reported sexual misconducts are false. If there is a 90% chance that the reported incident might be true, then it’s the university’s responsibility to step in and protect the physical and mental well-being of the victim.
Fairfield has added some aspects to further protect students, and create an alternative party that will support the student first. There are advocates from the Center for Family Justice that students can utilize as a free and confidential service for short-term counseling, medical/hospital accompaniment and support with Title IX proceedings.
And though this is a step in the right direction, I just urge the University and other schools to put more emphasis on third parties. Even if the University attempts to be unbiased and truly protect its students, there will always be something tugging them towards protecting the University and their image first.
Part of this comes from the fact that the University has to report all crimes on campus due to the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The University then has to publicly publish this report for students. Fairfield’s report can be easily accessed on the website or by googling “Fairfield University Clery Act.”
Further, in the late 20th century, the Supreme Court ruled that a university could only be held liable for damages, “if they have ‘actual knowledge’ of misconduct by teachers or students and act with ‘deliberate indifference’” and thus damages should only be given for “harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” This means that the University does not really have to fear lack of adequate action, as they only had to act with “deliberate indifference” to be found liable.
This changed slightly under the Obama administration when The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights realized that the best way to protect students’ rights was to aim for the reputation of the Universities. All the names of the schools with investigations into their Title IX compliance would be published publicly. Schools were pushed to ask students to report early in hopes to curb the sexual misconduct from getting worse and schools that failed to comply were, “subjected to lengthy, costly, and well-publicized investigations.”
The Trump administration changed all this and added the controversial cross-examination aspect. Colleges and universities are required to hold live hearings and can cross-examine the victim in hopes of “Fundamental fairness” for both the victim and the accused, or the “complainant” and “respondent” as the new language states. Groups like “Save Our Sons” supported this new aspect, as they are “dedicated to the families whose college sons have been falsely accused of sexual misconduct.”
A quote on the front page of their website reads, “So as I understand it, Atticus Finch is now the bad guy in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ because he doubted a story about rape” which they incorrectly attribute to the writer Scott Jaschik in his article on a fabricated sexual assault case, where he was quoting an anonymous student.
I agree more with the Obama Administration’s handling of Title IX cases, as having the University’s reputation tied to their compliance is always going to work, as, at the end of the day, the prestige of the University is their most important tool. Though I disagree with the cross-examination of sexual assault victims on a moral and compassionate level, I also do not believe a university should ever be in charge of “investigating” anything. I think their only role should be in providing support.
Luckily, the cross-examination requirement was lifted in 2021, but the live trial is still in place and there’s a constant fear that with a new Presidential administration, the policies would change yet again.
Even if it’s reinstated, I do not trust a university, with no trained investigation experience, nor any requirement for them to have legal training, to be able to cross-examine and collect evidence for a “live-trial.” I believe that Title IX is in place to force the University to support a student through some of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. Make sure they feel safe, get any counseling or psychological services they need, get a new dorm room, education assistance and more. They should not ever be in charge of investigating on their own campus.