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Title IX policy changes could ease student anxiety, experts say

Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said new Title IX policies were released following input from students, faculty and staff.

A new set of Title IX policies and procedures could create a more comfortable and supportive reporting process for students, experts said.

Title IX and legal experts said the policy changes, approved by the Board of Trustees Friday and effective July 1, could ensure that students are more aware of the resources available to them if they are sexually assaulted. They said the updates could help foster a more supportive environment for survivors and alleviate anxiety that may accompany recalling a traumatic incident in front of a multiple-person hearing board.

The policy changes – which include changing the Title IX investigation process from a six-person hearing board to a single investigator model and mandating that all faculty be mandatory reporters – come after a yearlong internal review of the University’s Title IX office.

“We are hopeful that the policy provides greater clarity on the work involved in each step and improves our students’ ability to monitor the progress of their case,” Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, said in an email.

Laguerre-Brown said the new policies were released following input from students, faculty and staff – and will include a long-requested ability to appeal a case because one or both of the parties involved do not believe the sanction is appropriate.

“We heard from members of our community that not having the ability to appeal a sanction was a significant concern,” she said. “The ability to appeal a sanction has been put into practice at other universities and we feel that adding the ability to appeal sanctions makes sense for our community.”

An alumna and sexual assault survivor called for the option to appeal cases on the basis of the sanction last spring in a petition after officials found her assailant guilty but gave him a sanction less than what is recommended by the student code of conduct.

Creating policies in line with peers
The new policy comes amid a national shift to implement a single-investigator model in place of a hearing board.

Previously, a volunteer student- and faculty-led hearing board collected evidence and determined the outcome of sexual assault cases. Under the new policy, a single investigator – who may be a University employee or outside hire – will consider a complaint.

Of GW’s 12 peer schools, eight currently use a single-investigator model or a hybrid model in which the facts and findings collected by the investigator are then used by a hearing board-type model to determine the outcome of the case. The other four schools rely on a hearing board model.

Policy changes will also expand the types of University employees who are designated mandatory reporters, and faculty and academic advisers will fall within the 14 different types of staff roles deemed “responsible employees.” The employees are required to disclose information to the Title IX office if a student shares an incident that could be considered sexual misconduct.

Prior to the policy shift, only top-level administrators, like department chairs and deans, were considered mandatory reporters.

The changes come at the end of a turbulent year for the Title IX office, following both student and federal pressure to revamp current proceedings.

Officials announced last July that they would review the University’s Title IX policies with the help of Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia-based law firm specializing in Title IX procedures. The law firm finished its probe earlier this year, and first drafts of the new policy were available in April, Laguerre-Brown said.

GW is also currently under federal Title IX investigation for the alleged mishandling of a student’s sexual violence case and sex-based discrimination.

Jody Shipper, the co-founder of Project IX, and the former executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity and chief Title IX administrator at the University of Southern California, said faculty aren’t necessarily trained as frequently as they should be when dealing with cases involving sexual misconduct, and that a single-investigator model would allow cases to be handled by someone with specialized training.

The University required hearing board members to be trained in asking questions “regarding the reported violations,” according to the student code of conduct.

“Whenever I hear from students who have had what they consider to be a really difficult experience, it is often that it was at the hearing stage that something went wrong,” Shipper said. “They got surprised or someone brings in evidence they weren’t supposed to bring in, and they have to figure out how to deal with it.”

Laguerre-Brown said the University will provide training for all parties “who have a role in addressing Title IX matters,” but she declined to say what the training will include.

Morgan Levy, the Title IX coordinator and director of University Student Services Coordination at the University of Rochester, said that while faculty are often hesitant to see the number of employees designated as mandatory reporters expanded, the shift ensures that no case is neglected and that students are aware of the resources and options available to them, should they choose to report.

“I think that it’s helpful if everyone is a responsible employee so that we can assure that no matter who gets told about an incident of sexual misconduct, they know they’re going to get connected to their rights and their options and the resources that are available to them,” Levy said. “It’s not like we’re going to force them to come into the Title IX office.”

With the policy change, GW will be among at least 11 peer schools that also list most faculty and staff positions as mandatory reporters.

Making the case process less ‘traumatic’
Experts said universities are increasingly recognizing that the single-investigator model causes less anxiety for the students involved in the case, who would otherwise present sensitive information to peers and professors.

Levy said a single-investigator setup is often preferable to a hearing board model because it allows someone to act as a neutral party who is more accessible than members of a hearing board.

She said the person who fills this role can frequently update the students involved in the case and alleviate the apprehension that comes with rehashing the details of an incident in front of multiple people during a hearing.

“In a hearing, these are already very traumatic, very difficult issues to talk through,” she said. “When you’re just starting to ask those really difficult questions in the time-limited experience of the hearing, sometimes it doesn’t allow the participants to give the level of thought and reflection necessary to do a good job answering the question.”

Drawbacks of a single investigator
Carly Mee, a staff attorney for SurvJustice, a nonprofit offering legal assistance to survivors, said a hearing board model can allow students to advocate for themselves better compared to a single-investigator model.

She said students often don’t get to speak “candidly” with a single investigator because what is recorded with an investigator can seem more rehearsed and edited.

“When my clients do a hearing they have the chance to ask questions, they get to submit questions to be asked to the accused students, to be asked to the witnesses,” Mee said. “In the single-investigator model, it’s really the investigator who gets to decide the questions that are asked.”

Lizzie Mintz contributed reporting.

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