Staff Editorial: New Office of Equity and Title IX is a band-aid for a gaping wound

The University must make substantive changes to ensure students feel safe

Staff Editorial: New Office of Equity and Title IX is a band-aid for a gaping wound

On Aug. 14, American University launched a new Office of Equity and Title IX coinciding with the implementation of new federal regulations regarding Title IX. These changes from the Department of Education are serious, as they have narrowed the definition of what sexual harassment is on campus. The new rules now require a live hearing for students making formal complaints. This is a change from previous years, when universities had a choice between live hearings or single investigator models.

Before this federal change, the University used an investigator model, which many say can reduce retraumatization for survivors. The University must comply with this new rule or risk losing federal funding. 

In an article by The Eagle, President Sylvia Burwell’s Chief of Staff Seth Grossman said that this change was not in direct response to the summer outcries on social media regarding allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Equity and Title IX Office will also be committed to serving as a centralized location, not only for sexual harassment, but also for racial discrimination on campus for students to seek support.

There is no question that the University has been put into a difficult position with the new federal rules. As university students, these federal changes are deeply troubling. Not everything is in the University's control, and this is one of those times. The federal government has made a mistake in prioritizing the accused over the mental anguish of survivors, and it has made it even more difficult for college students to know that what happened to them was sexual harassment. We cannot change that due to administration changes; survivors now will have to publicly detail their ordeal, if it even “counts” anymore to the federal government. 

While the Univeristy has created a new Discrimination and Non-Title IX Sexual Misconduct Policy in order to handle cases that may no longer fall under Title IX, but are nonetheless problematic, there are serious questions as to what the efficacy of this University policy will be in holding perpetrators accountable. Students were already feeling frustrated by how their cases were handled and have some distrust. The policy will need to be very clearly enforced for survivors to feel that there is any support for them on campus. Between these formal and informal resolutions, survivors are left relying on an office that hasn’t always worked effectively for them, and they now have to assume that an office that didn’t necessarily formally support them will now informally do so.

There are also questions about the amount of staffing in the new Office of Equity and Title IX. Complaints about the efficiency of AU’s previous Title IX office have historically been common, and it would seem that this centralization has potential to do more harm than good. If there isn’t strong capacity in the office to handle complaints of both sexual harassment and racial discrimination, then the problem still goes unsolved. Without a staff and vice president that have a full-strength office to support survivors, the Office of Equity and Title IX is just yet another collection of buzzwords for the University.

This sadly seems like another case where the administration might be revamping so that students think problems will be solved, without actually solving any problems. Name changes and promises to hire more and better employees, in order to support survivors, aren’t enough. There has to be something substantive so students feel safe making complaints. The social media posts this summer proved how pervasive racial and sexual harassment are on our campus, from students and professors. As students, we need mechanisms, especially now, to report serious issues. With all of our classmates and professors suddenly being invited into our homes, there is a real possibility that these types of incidents will only increase. Students need to know that their classmates and professors will still be held accountable during this period of online learning. The office cannot minimize these students in any way. The pandemic also poses a unique threat to students living with domestic violence either by living at home, or for students who may have signed leases before the change to online classes that are living with roommates or significant others who are abusive. How these cases are handled now is essential information for students.

The Office of Equity and Title IX can take this reconfiguring and either create positive change or continue to allow the student body to feel adrift. This is a collective moment where students are asking each other what support looks like — and finding the answer is simply not what the University has been doing. The lack of consistent messaging about resources, like OASIS, is a problem that needs to be addressed, as it could serve as a student space without Title IX involvement. Spaces for students to share these incidences without the red tape and pressure of the Title IX Office are also necessary, as social media accounts have made clear. The constant reading of traumatic accounts can be potentially devastating for one’s mental health; however, a space for sharing without going through an entire process is worth exploring. In a world where “doom scrolling” is many people’s quarantine activity of choice, a university space without hassle is beneficial.

This new office also has a chance to be more transparent. With many students outside the D.C. area and barely any on campus, it is likely that there will be fewer complaints to the office, which makes it difficult to know how meaningful this revamp is. It is also difficult because there are many rules about what universities can share about Title IX cases and what they can’t. That being said, students need a way to know this Office of Equity and Title IX is actually doing something, and so some form of assurances about internal audits would help students believe that our criticisms are being heard by someone. 

Racial discrimination and sexual harassment are traumatic. For the Department of Education making these new Title IX rules, and now for those at AU part of the informal process, the desire to rank these varying experiences against each other is wrong. The worthiness of these complaints are all valid. For too long, survivors on campus have struggled, often silently. The time to change feels like now, but it will be interesting to see if AU is just putting a bandage on a wound that affects everyone on campus. All of us at the University can only hope that this revamped office will hear and support us.

smcallister@theeagleonline.com

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