UPDATED: New Title IX changes potentially leave AU survivors with limited options

By Shannon Durazo

WASHINGTON – Hannah was living the typical freshman college lifestyle when one night altered the course of both her year and her entire university experience.  

The American University student, who is now a junior, said 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 in a Zoom interview, whose last name will be left out for privacy purposes.

Hannah said she was advised by her floor’s resident assistant to contact American’s Office of Title IX. But Hannah said the Title IX officer who met with her recommended she not open a criminal investigation due to a lack of evidence present and witnesses at the time of the assault. The officer gave Hannah the alternative option to file a No Contact Order (NCO), an alternate legal procedure under Title IX, 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. 

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. But, she said she wasn’t confident in either of the options given to her at the time.

Hannah’s situation is not uncommon. According to statistics on campus sexual violence from Know Your IX, a political advocacy group that informs students of their rights under Title IX, around one in five women in college are sexually assaulted, and of those only 12% report their experiences to law enforcement, in part due to a lack of confidence in the justice system. 

New changes to Title IX policy went into effect by the U.S. Department of Education this August, with opponents of the policy saying the changes could reduce the already small numbers of incidents reported for reasons such as increasing the burden of proof, requiring a live cross examination between the accuser and accused and narrowing what constitutes sexual assault.

“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.

Awe, the chief advocate for Title IX at American’s Center for Advocacy and Student Equity (CASE), said in a phone interview 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, as a result of these changes there will be a shift in CASE’s role at AU with the Title IX process in light of the controversial new requirements such as a live cross-examination and a higher burden of proof.

Dr. Sarah Nightingale said that there are parts of the new regulations, if used properly, could be helpful survivors, but “parts of it that could be used to create further disparities.”

Nightingale, an assistant professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in the social work program who has spent a decade in victim advocacy and violence prevention on college campuses, said some of the changes that could create further disparities is the new live cross examination portion, which can potentially re-traumatize victims, and the changes to the definition of sexual assault under Title IX which she said could decrease the number of investigations of sexual assault incidents.

 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, resulting in her attending eight free sessions of individual and group therapy at the Student Counseling Center afterwards. She said the assault still affects her to this day.

“The whole experience changes you, and you will never be the same as you were before and afterwards,” said Hannah.

Pritma “Mickey” Irizarry said that the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center (HPAC) at American underwent significant changes over the summer to more appropriately adapt its services to both these Title IX changes and COVID-19. Irizarry, who is the director of HPAC, said in a Microsoft Teams interview that these changes include an updated online bystander intervention course to be required by all students and staff, and making AU’s confidential and non-confidential resources for survivors more web-accessible during COVID-19.

“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.

Awe said one major change American made to address these new Title IX regulations was the creation of an additional policy under the code of conduct titled “Discrimination and Non-Title IX Sexual Misconduct” so individuals who experienced sexual assault or harassment that would not be covered under the narrower Title IX definition can now file their claim as a conduct violation instead of through the Title IX office.

“What doesn’t fit into the Title IX box before can now fit into the conduct box,” said Awe.

All of these changes have been culminated in the creation of a new Office of Equity & Title IX at American this fall, including a new Title IX officer at American who assumed office on September 30. 

Nightingale said one additional change to Title IX that could affect universities, like American, that are offering limited on-campus housing this semester due to COVID-19 is that colleges are no longer obligated to investigate incidents that occur at private, off-campus residencies. 

“In most research studies, we find that the majority of sexual assaults that are occurring are occurring off campus, and it is naïve to assume the experience of an assault off-campus won’t impact someone’s education experience,” said Nightingale. 

Hannah said although her experience occurred on campus, she knows “so many people” that have experienced sexual assault and harassment outside of the dorms, like in Greek housing, 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: