By Shannon Durazo
WASHINGTON – Hannah (whose last name will be left out for privacy reasons) was living the typical freshman college lifestyle when one night altered the course of both her year and university experience.
The American University student, who is now a junior, said in a Zoom interview she was sexually assaulted by a friend and floor-mate at her residence hall just one week into the spring 2019 semester.
“I didn’t really know what to do and what the protocol was, but I didn’t feel comfortable living near them anymore,” said Hannah.
Hannah said she was advised by her floor’s resident assistant to go visit American’s Title IX office. But when she visited, Hannah said the Title IX officer who spoke to her recommended she not open a criminal investigation due to a lack of evidence present and witnesses at the time. The officer gave Hannah the option to file a No Contact Order (NCO), which would limit contact with the perpetrator to a certain extent, but they could still choose to remain on her floor and even stay in the class Hannah shared with them.
“It was hard at the time because the officer gave me both of the options, but it was pretty clear after she explained what they were that I was kind of screwed,” said Hannah.
Hannah’s situation is not uncommon. According to statistics on campus sexual violence from Know Your IX, around 1 in 5 women in college are sexually assaulted, and of those only 12% end up reporting to law enforcement. When a swath of new changes to Title IX policy by the U.S. Department of Education went into effect this August, that include items such as narrowing the definition of what constitutes sexual assault and stating universities do not have formal responsibility over incidents that occur at private, off-campus settings, opponents of the policy said this could reduce the already small numbers of incidents reported.
“Personally, I found these changes to be pretty nerve-wracking and honestly disheartening because I believe that it did roll back protections for survivors,” said India Awe, the chief advocate for Title IX at American’s Center for Advocacy and Student Equity (CASE) in a phone interview.
Awe said that although she can see the benefits of the policy change in terms of allowing for more protections for students who are accused of Title IX infractions, she said that as a result of these changes there will be a shift in CASE’s role with the Title IX process going forward in light of the controversial new requirement now for the university’s Title IX officer to mediate a live cross examination between the accused and the individual who filed the claim.
Awe said the change in definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and assault under new Title IX guidelines is a cause for concern.
“The change in the definition essentially is that it has to be so bad that it is inhibiting the victim’s ability to continue their education,” said Awe. “And honestly to me it made it more vague, because how do you determine what is inhibiting your ability to get an education?”
Hannah said although her experience did not disrupt her academic abilities, it did have long term impacts on her emotional health, so she attended free sessions at the Student Counseling Center afterwards.
“The whole experience changes you, and you will never be the same as you were before and afterwards,” said Hannah.
Awe said one way American has been attempting to address these new Title IX changes while still complying with them is by creating an additional policy titled “Discrimination and Non-Title IX Sexual Misconduct” underneath the existing code of conduct for individuals to report instances of sexual assault that would not be covered under the narrow definition now used in the new Title IX regulations.
“What doesn’t fit into the Title IX box before can now fit into the conduct box,” said Awe.
American’s Director of the Health Promotion & Advocacy Center Pritma “Mickey” Irizarry said in a Microsoft Teams interview that HPAC underwent significant changes over the summer to more appropriately adapt its confidential advocacy services to these Title IX changes and to assist students who seek out those resources remotely during the pandemic.
“But you know this summer because of the timeline the Department of Education gave, we were making major changes to our systems in place that usually take at least a year or two in only just a few months,” said Irizarry.
Dr. Sarah Nightingale, an assistant professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in the social work program who previously spent a decade in victim advocacy and violence prevention on college campuses, said in a phone interview that she had a “complex reaction” to the new regulations.
“There are parts of the new regulations that I think if they are used by people who are well trained and experienced that they can be really helpful to survivors, and there are parts of it that could be used to create further disparities,” said Nightingale.
Nightingale said some of the changes that could create further disparities include the new live cross examination portion, the change of definition of sexual assault under Title IX which could decrease sexual assault incidents investigated and that universities are not obligated to investigate instances that occur at private, off-campus residencies.
“In most research studies, we find that the majority of sexual assaults that are occurring are off campus, and it is naïve to assume the experience of an assault off-campus won’t impact someone’s education experience,” said Nightingale.
Ultimately, Hannah’s situation was resolved not by the Title IX office but the fact that her perpetrator withdrew from the university for medical reasons shortly after the incident occurred. She said although her experience was on campus, she knows “so many people” that have had similar experiences as her outside of the dorms and the new changes potentially leave those survivors without options.
“I just feel like it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Hannah.
The American University Office of Equity & Title IX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.