By now, you may have read my Advice on Negotiating Financial Aid or my How to Save Money and Help Your Child Graduate in Four Years posts. Next up, I’m going to talk to you about the first in a series of 10 Things Every Parent and Student Should Know About College But Didn’t Know to Ask. The first topic? Title IX.
I honestly do not even know where to begin about Title IX and its impact on campuses, but both you and your student need to understand its implications before you find yourselves embroiled in the mess it can make. As much as it can help a young person who is a victim of sexual assault, I do not know a single college administrator or faculty member who doesn’t have a horror story about another young life that was derailed by it. We all have a story about that one case that was so preposterous that the committee was googling terms for sex acts on work computers and finding Urban Dictionary really helpful while they quietly said to each other, “Where do they even come up with this stuff?”
We all remember Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who dragged her mattress around with her in protest of how the university handled her sexual assault allegations. For many, her 2014 story became the face and voice of the repercussions of college administrators handling Title IX matters and in trying to doing their best, falling short.
Title IX, among many other things (I’m looking at the very narrow slice of it that pertains to sexual assault and harassment), is seen as a directive regarding the handling of sexual assault cases on college campuses. Moreover, while many, especially Women’s Rights activists, champion it, most people who work on Title IX cases on campuses shake their heads and wish the rules were different.
Why is it important to talk to your student about it now? Because college students can get caught up in Title IX issues really quickly, and there is no mandate that you, or any trained police agency or legal counsel be involved.
Back in 2011 (so yeah, not so long ago), the Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights sent college and universities what are called “Dear Colleague” letters. These are not laws. These are not reviewed by Congress and signed by a President. These are not even executive orders. They are intended to be suggestions for best practices.
One of the “Dear Colleague” letters issued stated that in order to remain in compliance with Title IX rules, the standard for campuses when dealing with issues of sexual assault should be a “preponderance of evidence” instead of the more rigorous standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” It also discouraged the cross-examination of alleged victims, warning that this practice could intimidate or traumatize them. Therefore, in essence, the accused cannot confront his (usually, though men can be assaulted as well) accuser, and no one is afforded a lawyer unless they personally decide to hire one. Even better? If the accuser doesn’t like the decision? The accuser can appeal (which is double jeopardy). In addition, they are supposed to do all of this within a suggested 60-day period.
Colleges went crazy. Non-compliance with Title IX is a really big deal, and it can impact their ability to accept federal financial aid (grants and loans), which can impact their ability to continue to function. IT also has implications for their ability to field athletic teams. It’s really complicated and a big, huge deal. So, they all picked someone to be their Title IX designee (people from all walks of college life from HR Directors to Student Life Coordinators to Deans). They patched together policies quickly that have been refined over time in many cases. But, still. The penalties for being found guilty are often swift, severe and life altering. As a rule of thumb, they will err on the side of the victim because if they are found to be non-compliant? The money on which they rely could be restricted or withdrawn.
In the past six months, the current administration has issued contradictory statements rescinding all, or parts, of the Obama Dear Colleauge letters causing even further confusion, and so most campuses are still adhering to the admonitions of the 2011 rules until some clarity is gained.
I am not saying that rape cases on campuses do not exist. They do, and they need to be handled professionally, compassionately, discreetly and with immediacy. However, Title IX mandates that the college handle them. As in some administrator, like me (but not me anymore because I got out of that arena) investigates and interviews witnesses and makes recommendations, and then, depending on the process put in place on campus, a decision about everyone’s future is made. I know, right? The sum of my personal training for that position when I held it was maybe 10 years of watching Law and Order and Special Victims and three training sessions, one of which was a webinar during which I painted my nails because I had a date after it. Right?
Know what’s missing? Police. You know, men and women who are trained to investigate collect evidence and interview people. They work as teams. They collect evidence. I mean, we do our best on campuses. There are some good training seminars. A number of colleges will encourage a victim (or an accused student in some cases) to contact police. But just as many schools do not. It can generate negative press; it can end up in their Clery Report; it can damage a reputation and alumni giving.
So, what advice to do I have for you?
Speak to your young adult children about sexual assault on campus. Talk about the dangers of drinking at big parties and being alone with people they don’t know well. I’m not victim-blaming; I am advocating having a plan to be safe. No one should walk home alone late at night, ever. Some of the best schools in the country are in some of the worst neighborhoods. Students get a false sense of security on campuses; they start to feel like it’s home very quickly. Remind them that it’s not.
Look up how the institution defines sexual assault and Title IX issues (they all define this a little differently) on their website. Make your student aware of the policies. If, in a worst-case scenario, your daughter is a victim, speak to her about calling the police immediately before involving campus security. Call 911. Get a friend to take you to the local police station, not campus security. A police investigation into a crime such as this will force the college to not only handle the case differently, but often they will follow the lead of real authorities. And these crimes do happen, and they are under-reported, and they must be handled appropriately. Sexual assault on campuses is a frighteningly real issue, and I am not suggesting that it is not.
If your child is accused, however? That’s where the problems with Title IX exist. Honestly, if my young Murphy was heading to college, I would tell him:
1) Never date a woman on campus;
2) Do not be the “good guy” who walks the drunk/stoned/otherwise impaired girl home so she gets there safely (call campus security to pick her up);
3) Make sure you are never alone with a woman on a campus with a closed door; and,
4) Otherwise be vigilant about how you even speak around women.
Date women from the town, from high school, or from other colleges. Don’t do anything on campus that could land you in one of these situations.
What your son needs to know is that many young men have had their lives turned upside down because of Title IX investigations. They’ve been expelled from schools or otherwise penalized. They can be suspended from campus immediately upon the start of an investigation. The repercussions can follow them throughout their lives. I am no fan of Betsy DeVos at all, but her decision to look into the application of Title IX is not the worst thing that can happen.
The first things any young man accused of any kind of sexual misconduct on campus should do are:
- Refuse to be interviewed by administrators, no matter what they threaten and demand that his parents be called immediately;
- Write down everything that he can remember about the time in question as it is fresh in his mind, including everyone he can remember seeing him before, during and after the alleged incident, and then store that in a private cloud drive, not on a personal computer;
- Hire an attorney and insist that the attorney be present at any interviews with campus officials;
- If police have not been called, go to the police with the attorney and insist that they investigate; and, most impossibly,
- Do NOT speak about the accusations or incident to any friends or to any friends of the victim or any faculty or staff of the college (even people in the counseling center can be forced to speak to campus investigators if the institution pays them, though privilege still holds).
Understand that kids do crazy things when they go to college. Things that make my head explode when I think about them. There is no end to the level of stupid in which a bunch of “young adult” 19 year-olds can engage. Some of that is sexual. I know, not your baby. However, somebody’s babies are doing some pretty wild stuff. Then there is television, where revenge-y shows and stalker-ism and all kinds of inappropriate-for-the-real-world behavior looks glam and fab. Finally, there is the upsetting fact that the age of onset for many serious mental illnesses is 18 – 24.
Breaking up in an unpleasant way has led to more than one Title IX accusation. So has the rejection of unwanted advances. Young women today have grown up in a world where women have been portrayed as pursuers of men as equally as men of women. How either party handles that attention or rejection can have consequences. Think through the various scenarios that could lead to a false accusation given the emotional volatility of teens and young adults. There are countless ways things can go wrong, most of which would never happen. Nevertheless, it only takes one thing to find yourself in a mess.
I oversaw a case (at a private Catholic college) where a cherubic- faced, bright young woman was “pulling a train” (engaging in sexual acts with several men one after the other) with four young men. She wanted to charge the fourth with sexual assault because she said that she was getting tired, and he did not stop immediately. In the course of the investigation, we discovered that a group of students engaged in this behavior every Friday afternoon and had been doing so for months. Never mind that the adults’ heads exploded at the thought of this kind of behavior, or that none of us had any context for even beginning to understand. The committee of administrators (that included two nuns) split about what to do about this young man, with two wanting to suspend him and two wanting to speak the group about sexual health. The administrator who broke the contentious tie vote decided to have a mandatory sexual health and assault meeting with all of the students who admitted involvement after someone made a very convincing argument about how the young man involved was not bound by any terms of confidentiality and could go straight to the press (or the internet) with the whole thing.
In another instance, a young woman (with a history of mental health issues we knew about but could not consider in the case) accused a star athlete of sexual assault after “slipping something into her drink.” There were no witnesses, and in fact, several other students reported seeing her sleeping on a sofa after the alleged assault. However, here’s the twist. Her father was a senior administrator who wanted the young man expelled, mid-semester, which would have made transfer difficult, and per NCAA rules, at worst he’d never play collegiate athletics again, and at best he’d have to sit out for a year. To add to the mix, the young man’s father was a senior police office with a huge metropolitan department. In the end, we dragged the investigation to its 59th day, which yielded no evidence of her being drugged or assaulted because she refused to meet with police, and got him to the end of the semester. The young man had been immediately banned from campus for anything but his classes and practices and had to stay at least 100 feet from the young woman at all times he was there. It was a small, elite school. That was tough. He was expelled then by the senior administrator despite the lack of evidence. His parents immediately threatened a very public lawsuit, and the whole thing was settled by college counsel (at the direction of the Board of Trustees) by arranging a transfer for the young man to another college with the first college paying all of his future higher education expenses plus $100,000 in damages. And everyone acted like it never happened.
There are many very quiet settlements happening like this all over the U.S. because colleges are ill equipped to manage these investigations and no amount of sitting through seminars and webinars and reading what’s going on at other schools can match the experience and resources of law enforcement agencies. In fact, colleges often decide cases before the police have come to any conclusions, and they tend to decide in favor of victims. Once police complete, the families of the young men who are then exonerated by professionals trained to investigate these cases sue the institutions, and they win. In other instances, families hire private investigators, and again, they sue. The lasting damage cannot be underscored. Try transferring to another college with that in your student conduct record. If you do, and you plan a professional career in law or medicine or a field requiring security clearance? The ethics hurdle would be insurmountable. So don’t discount the cost and think it’s better to just walk away without a fuss.
At least 170 students who have wound up in this system have brought legal challenges against their universities, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. We wrote last year about one of those — Yale student Jack Montague, who in February 2016 was expelled three months before he was to have graduated. A university panel determined Montague had had nonconsensual sex with a coed in October 2014. He argued that he and the woman slept together four times, and it was always consensual. The accuser filed her complaint a year after the alleged assault. – The Oklahoman
In sum, talk to your kids about Title IX before you take them to campus. If you are spending this summer touring campus, ask an adult admission representative how many Title IX cases are investigated every year. While they cannot tell you details, they should know numbers. Ask for the campus policy. Use Google. Look at the college’s Clery Report, which must disclose crime on campus and is required to be available on their homepage. Have a plan for what your child will do if s/he is a victim or is accused. In most cases, these matters are investigated and adjudicated without parents, law enforcement or lawyers. Do not let that happen to your child!
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