Title IX: Protecting students from sexual violence

April was sexual assault awareness month and the laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual conduct in schools are changing. At issue is how schools will address complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

“We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetuate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in an interview with The Associated Press (AP).

The proposed changes repeal an Obama-era law about how schools respond to complaints. If the rules aren’t followed, schools could lose federal money. Critics complain the law was too complex and placed an unfair burden on administrators, according to AP.

Richland Associate Director of Student Services Latrenda Thomas said the Trump Administration is possibly reviving previously used policies, such as “presumption of innocence,” “access to evidence” and “cross-examination” on campuses nationwide beginning in the fall.

“In order to conduct a proper investigation, we have to stay neutral,” Thomas said, referring to the importance of maintaining due process. The reporting party, as she puts it, is required to fill out an online form and then submit it to the Title IX coordinators on campus. Thomas lets the reporting party tell their side of the story before hearing from the responding party. A preliminary interview is then conducted to see if it is a Title IX issue and if the complaint merits an investigation. Thomas and Daryl Greene-Wright are the Title IX contacts at Richland. Thomas was an investigator under Title IX before she was promoted to coordinator.

Title IX was passed in 1972. The law protects all students from being denied participation in any activity, whether it be sports or joining a club at an educational institution based on their gender or race.

Every educational institution is required to have a Title IX policy or it must forfeit federal funding. The program serves as an awareness campaign to protect victims of stalking, harassment and/or sexual assault. Victims must file a complaint and initiate an investigation within 60 days.

“Title IX is meant only for schools,” said Kelly Sonnanstine, coordinator of the office of student life at Richland Community College. “You will [potentially] go to jail if you sexually assault someone. The school can just kick you out.”

Sonnanstine said that Title IX is discussed at orientation with all new students who enroll at Richland. She said, once a sexual assault case is filed under Title IX, the complaint becomes a police matter.

On March 28, a Texas federal judge investigating allegations of sexual assault by students against members of the Baylor football team in 2016 ordered the Philadelphia-based law firm, Pepper Hamilton, to turn over thousands of records in the case. The judge is reviewing Baylor’s actions in response to complaints of sexual and domestic violence, including several incidents of gang rape, according to AP. Seventeen women who studied at Baylor claimed the attacks against them were ignored or mishandled. To date, the case has resulted in the dismissal of football coach Art Briles, firing of president Ken Starr and a total of 19 football players.

Sonnanstine said Richland has not encountered any offenses involving sexual assault or domestic violence since she’s been at the college. Thomas confirmed that since being appointed coordinator in 2018, 17 of the 25 complaints were caused by a lack of communication. The other eight were either student code of conduct issues, informal resolutions or investigations.