Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, April 25, 2018

University updates students on Title IX initiatives

AU makes new strides in sexual assault prevention, but some say school still has long way to go

University updates students on Title IX initiatives

The University announced Friday that the number of unique Title IX cases reported at AU last school year increased by almost 50 percent, as compared to the year before.

That’s a good sign, says Dr. Gail Hanson, Vice President for Campus Life, because it indicates that more victims of sexual violence are willing to come forward.

The announcement, sent via email to the campus community from the Office of Campus Life, also included information on the University’s progress on combating sexual assault, including topics like prevention, survivor support and revisions to the student conduct process.

Title IX is the federal law that safeguards students from discrimination, sexual harassment and violence. One of the ways the University hopes to improve its compliance with Title IX is by more clearly educating survivors on the conduct process, according to Hanson.

“As that information pervades the student body more, people will step forward when they have things to report,” Hanson said. “We can expect the numbers [of reported Title IX cases] to increase before we begin to see them, I hope, decrease as we have fewer incidents of misconduct.”

Looking forward, the University will continue its online training programs for students, faculty and staff, the email said, in light of the two open federal Title IX investigations of the University. For students, those programs include Empower AU, Think About It and consent-based training at Eagle Summit.

Title IX Reports in 2015-2016

Although more than 90 unique Title IX reports were made at the University last academic year, fewer students are pursuing student conduct cases for sexual violence. The number of student conduct cases in relation to sexual assault decreased from 15 to 11 between last academic year and the year before, the email said.

That means that more students are telling the University that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but have chosen not to bring their case to the Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution office. This makes it less likely that the perpetrator will face AU-imposed consequences, such as disciplinary probation.

“Ninety seems like a lot, but that’s not actually representative of how many people are assaulted on campus,” senior Faith Ferber, the complainant in the most recent Title IX complaint against the University, said. “An increase in numbers [of reported assaults] is really good because it shows that more survivors are feeling comfortable coming forward and reporting.”

Several of those cases are still in “active resolution,” Hanson said, which means they are still open within the conduct office. She said that some cases remain open because the defendant, or the alleged perpetrator, chooses to withdraw from AU before the case is closed. Hanson did not attribute the drop in the total number of cases brought before student conduct to any particular cause.

“We try to help people make good decisions, but it's the complainant's decision about whether to bring a case,” Hanson said.

Updates on the investigations by the Office for Civil Rights

The University is currently under two separate federal investigations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for possible violation of Title IX, and has complied with all requests for information, Hanson told The Eagle.

The most recent case was opened after Ferber filed a complaint with the DOE because she said she was wrongly forced to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding her conduct case. The confidentiality agreement is standard in all conduct cases according to Hanson.

“I would love to see the University say, ‘you know what, maybe we can do better, and maybe we’re not doing enough right now’,” Ferber told the Eagle earlier this week. “I think that would really help survivors feel safer.”

Despite the attention that Ferber’s case has received, it could take years to resolve -- there were 268 sexual violence cases at 207 postsecondary institutions under investigation as of August 24, according to the Department of Education. The list includes cases that are still unresolved from 2011.

Ferber herself hasn’t been updated on the status of the case, she told The Eagle, and hasn’t submitted any additional information since her initial complaint in February. Administrators have not been updated on the status of the case either, Hanson said.

“In reality, the reason that AU is under investigation for violating Title IX in two different cases is because they’re doing something wrong,” Ferber said. “They’re not protecting survivors to the best of their ability and I strongly believe that people wouldn’t file Title IX complaints if the University had done everything right.”

However, Ferber’s case has already prompted changes to the way the University handles sexual assault. The Sexual Assault Working Group (SAWG) recommended two changes this past year to AU’s code of conduct, according to Hanson. The group added additional clarification, though not protocol changes, to the section of the code that details disciplinary probation. The University has also revised its Honesty and Confidentiality Agreement in the Student Conduct Code, the document Ferber criticized, so that it now provides an exception in cases related to Title IX. Students involved in a case regarding sexual violence can now openly discuss the proceedings.

“In Title IX cases, there are instances when, probably a complainant more than a respondent, would have occasion to talk about things that occurred in a hearing and that would be appropriate,” Hanson said.

Looking forward: Education, training and further improvement

The University said in its email that it continued with training programs implemented in previous years for the class of 2020. All first year students were required to participate in two sexual assault prevention programs: Empower AU and Think About It. If they attended Eagle Summit, they also participated in a version of Step Up training.

1,318 incoming students, the majority of the incoming class, attended Eagle Summit and participated in an activity on consent during the program. All first year students, whether they attended Eagle Summit or not, were then required to complete Think About It: Turning Points, an online training program with four parts: sex in college, partying smart, sexual violence and healthy relationships. Lastly, they needed to complete Empower AU, a mandatory, peer-led workshop focused on consent and sexual assault prevention. The Wellness Center could not be reached to release the attendance numbers for those requirements.

Going forward, the primary “vehicle” for improvement on sexual assault prevention is the Sexual Assault Working Group, Hanson said. She anticipates that the group, containing faculty, staff and student representatives, will examine the Student Conduct Code this coming academic year and make additional recommendations to improve it.

“We think that what we’re doing certainly is compliant, but we can always do what we’re doing better and we’re going to take a deep dive on that this year,” Hanson said.

Hanson has also taken steps to make the reporting process for Title IX complaints more widely understood by turning it into streamlined infographics, Hanson said, which were used in training for Housing and Dining employees and will be distributed to anyone interested in the student conduct process for sexual assault.

She also said that survivors can consult the two full time advocates serving in OASIS, a free and confidential counseling resource for victims of sexual assault.

Despite such progress, Ferber said the University still has a ways to go.

“I think we still have a long way to go because although OASIS is fantastic, most survivor support measures are only in place because AU students have fought for them, like the flow chart for example,” Ferber said. “Until we have a university that actually cares about supporting survivors and not just one that reacts to student pressure, we deserve more.”


crozen@theeagleonline.com


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