Title IX is a civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in universities that receive federal funds. In May the Department of Education issued changes to Title IX regulations, giving accused students more rights.
Some of the major changes in Title IX investigations include only requiring schools to investigate sexual harassment that occurred in University-affiliated spaces, allowing for the cross-examination of both survivors and perpetrators, allowing schools to change the standard for preponderance of evidence and requiring institutions to provide live hearings.
Junior Sarah Adkins, a member of the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), explained in an email to The News-Letter that she believes these changes will make it harder for survivors of sexual violence to come forward.
“Title IX as it regards to sexual assault is meant to protect and support survivors, and this new rule makes the process much more complicated for survivors which may create a barrier to reporting,” she wrote.
An event hosted by SARU and Inter-Asian Council on Oct. 6 allowed the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) to explain how its proceedings will be impacted by the Title IX changes. Assistant Vice Provost and Title IX Coordinator Joy Gaslevic and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Linda Boyd spoke on behalf of OIE.
Gaslevic assured students that OIE’s services will largely remain as they were before the change. This includes maintaining the preponderance of evidence standard in investigations of sexual misconduct.
“So much of what we are doing in regards to sexual misconduct will stay the same: our prevention, our support, our accountability, our proper report handling efforts,” she said. “What is usually prohibited under sexual misconduct procedures will still be prohibited under University policy and handled under University policy.”
Sophomore Robab Vaziri, co-director of outreach for SARU, supports OIE’s response to the Title IX changes.
“OIE is really mitigating the negative effects that the new Title IX changes might impose on schools,” she said. “Its adaptation is pretty phenomenal.”
According to the Campus Climate Survey released by OIE last year, only 30% of students in 2018 felt “very/extremely knowledgeable” about how to reach out for help or file a report.
Senior Padmini Balaji, co-president of SARU, noted in an email to The News-Letter that while she is grateful for how OIE handled the changes to Title IX, she knows the changes will only be effective if survivors are aware of the support systems in place.
“It’s really important for OIE to be transparent and continue holding platforms for students to ask questions and express their concerns,” she wrote.
OIE can maintain mostly unchanged operations because it is differentiating between Title IX investigations and Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures (SMPP) investigations.
For an incident to be investigated under Title IX, the complainant must file a formal complaint, the incident must have occurred under a University program or activity and the complainant must be participating in a University program or activity.
Currently, limited quid pro quo sexual harassment and any sexual harassment which creates a hostile environment for employees, as well as sex-based harassment that falls under the Violence Against Women Act, can be investigated under Title IX. Complainants whose circumstances do not match the Title IX requirements will fall under SMPP.
Boyd explained the limitations in investigating quid pro quo sexual harassment under Title IX.
“The regulations say that the harassment has to be committed by an employee of the University,” she said. “We are aware that there are people in positions of power who are not employed by the University, so if the investigation does not fall under Title IX sexual harassment, it would fit under the broader sexual misconduct policy.”
According to Gaslevic, there is no advantage to filing a complaint under Title IX compared to under SMPP.
“Both processes provide equal fundamental fairness. There are differences in the processes, but the outcomes are the same,” she said. “Sanctions under either branch of the policy are always geared to stop problematic conduct, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.”
OIE services during COVID-19
At the event, students raised questions about OIE’s support for students experiencing sexual misconduct far from Baltimore and University-related activities due to COVID-19.
Although Title IX only applies to incidents that occur at the University, Boyd highlighted that OIE is still providing its full services virtually to students living off-campus or at home.
“OIE will provide supportive measures for all incidents happening in private homes not connected to education programs and activities,” Boyd said. “We can still connect people with Campus Safety and Security, even if they’re not local. We also help them to connect to their local police departments, and we can connect people to counseling resources and case managers even though they’re not in the Baltimore area.”
According to Boyd, OIE’s operations remain relatively the same.
“We are not in our physical space on campus, so people cannot walk in like they normally would, but that is the only part of our operations that has been impeded a bit,” she said.
For students who file Title IX complaints which eventually go to a hearing, complainants and respondents will be put in separate breakout rooms to ensure the safety of the complainant.
Gaslevic emphasized that some students feel more comfortable speaking about their experiences with sexual misconduct over Zoom than they did in person. She anticipates that OIE will continue to give students the opportunity to meet virtually even once in-person activities resume.
According to Vaziri, OIE’s adaptation of the mandatory Title IX hearing process is crucial in helping survivors feel comfortable coming forward. Vaziri is a member of the Sexual Violence Advisory Committee (SVAC), through which the University receives input from students and faculty to revise SMPP.
“One of the biggest concerns is the cross-examination hearing that will be required by law for schools to undertake if they receive a formal complaint,” she said. “OIE is really mitigating the negative effects that the new Title IX changes might impose on school.”
Boyd clarified that even if the complainant files a formal complaint and the Title IX requirements are met, the case will not necessarily go to hearing. If both parties agree to an informal resolution, OIE will facilitate it in lieu of a hearing. If the case does go to a hearing, OIE has put in place a number of procedures to ensure the safety and comfort of the complainant.
For hearings involving students, the determination panel will consist of three people all trained in maintaining decorum. The chair will be an external legal professional who must approve all questions before they are asked. Additionally, each party must have a hearing advisor, which the University is willing to provide free of charge. The hearing advisor asks questions during hearings on behalf of their advisee, either the complainant or respondent.
The point of hearing advisors, Boyd highlighted, is to avoid complainant-respondent contact during the hearing.
“It’s not going to be a free-for-all where the parties can be asked any possible questions,” she said. “There won’t be a situation where the respondent is questioning the complainant.”
Junior Karnika Mehrotra, a member of SVAC, called for greater communication over hearing procedures from OIE in an email to The News-Letter.
“I would like to see OIE give students more concrete information about the resources they provide survivors before, during, and after the investigation,“ she wrote. “It is really important to be clear about the exact proceedings of an investigation and the resources available as both of these data points could determine whether or not a survivor decides to report on their own.”
Boyd and Gaslevic urged students in need of support to visit the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention website, which includes information about sexual misconduct helplines, contacting counselors and filing complaints.
OIE also released a Frequently Asked Questions page which further breaks down the difference between Title IX and SMPP complaints. It includes additional information about a complainant’s right to anonymity and the process of filing a complaint.
Vaziri emphasized that in the past, students have expressed negative sentiments toward OIE because of a perceived lack of action from the office. However, she believes that OIE has been working very hard to mitigate the negative impact of Title IX changes on survivors.
She believes that OIE can improve its image on campus by hosting more events for students and giving the community more information about its initiatives.
“There needs to be data and more transparency on OIE’s end to show that they are actually improving and that they’re committed to survivor safety on campus,” Vaziri said.
Balaji called on OIE to focus more on the wellbeing of survivors.
“I’ve heard of instances where even when OIE finds a sexual misconduct violation, the perpetrator is not held accountable in ways that would maximize the survivor’s safety. This leads to a university culture that trivializes sexual violence,” she wrote. “I would like to see the university really prioritize survivors moving forward and ensure that individual perpetrators, as well as organizations which allow violence to occur at their events, are held accountable for their actions.”
Mehrotra noted that OIE can do more to educate students on its Title IX changes.
“Due to the purely online format of this semester, modes of information dispersal are limited,” she wrote. “However, I think OIE will begin to utilize social media to connect with the broader Hopkins community.”
She suggested that OIE partner with various campus organizations to expand its educational impact.
In addition to student education, Balaji stressed the importance of faculty training.
“The university should work to ensure that all faculty members are trauma-informed and undergo extensive training such that they are equipped to respond to student survivors with empathy and support and direct them to appropriate resources,“ she wrote.
Adkins emphasized the necessity of considering the national implications of the Title IX changes, especially at universities that will not make it a priority to protect survivors.
“Hopkins students should not let the fact that our school is handling this well skew their views on the policy in general,” she wrote. “This policy will affect a lot of survivors across the country. We need to be conscious of the true impact of this policy and work to change it regardless of our school’s stance.”
Robab Vaziri is a contributing writer for The News-Letter. She was not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this article.
For crisis support and resource connections, call SARU’s confidential 24/7 peer-run hotline at (410) 516-7887.