In May, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released
new provisions to Title IX which hold educational institutions responsible for upholding anti-discrimination practices on the basis of gender.
On Tuesday, Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) hosted a virtual discussion panel “What is Title IX and How Does it Affect Me?” in an effort to maintain transparency for students and staff of Title IX with its recent revisions. The event was facilitated by two BAVO student leaders, senior Elizabeth Day and junior Emily Karalus.
Title IX was initially passed into law in 1972 with athletics in mind. As Saint Mary’s General Counsel Martha McCampbell explained, Title IX was intended to provide women with equal scholarship and playing opportunities as well as equal access to facilities like locker rooms. The law was later used in 1979 to sue a medical school on grounds of gender discrimination when a female applicant was denied admission. It was not until 1998, as McCampbell explained, that Title IX was used in sexual assault cases.
In 2011, under President Barack Obama’s administration, a “Dear Colleague” Letter was addressed and sent to schools around the nation with guidelines pertaining to Title IX violations. McCampbell was concerned about the nonspecific language included in the letter.
“So the Obama administration’s definition of sexual harassment of ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature’ completely changed life on campus,” McCampbell said. “I will say that, from my perspective, that language –– ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature’ –– was very ambiguous. The pushback on the Obama guidance was tremendous.”
Saint Mary’s Title IX Coordinator Dr. James J. Gillespie explained DeVos’s recent changes.
One of the main provisions of the anti-discrimination law is the new verbiage in Title IX that defines sexual harassment as “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.” Other instances of sexual harassment not supported by this clause would potentially be subject instead to other disciplinary action by the College.
The second main provision was the inclusion of cross-examination.
“Both parties must be represented by an advisor; that person can, but does not have to be, a lawyer. It is the advisor who does the cross-examination, not the parties,” Gillespie explained. “At the request of one of the parties, it can be done in this format, where they’re all in the same place virtually but not in the same room. A person that has been personally victimized would not be forced to sit in the same room with the person accused of victimizing them.”
Advisors would also be responsible for all questioning; neither party would be able to directly cross-examine the other.
An additional clause of the Trump administration’s changes to the law include a possible Title IX exemption for religious institutions. As explained by McCampbell, Saint Mary’s followed Title IX protocol outlined by the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter and although it has a historic exemption to be a single-sex undergraduate institution, the religious exemption does not play into the reporting process.
Gillespie and the Title IX Office updated Saint Mary’s policies with the recent provisions this past summer. He expects these policies, once completed, to be comprehensive for faculty and students as well as include both the campus’s confidential resources and external ones.
“I just want to reinforce what Dr. Gillespie said, which was, we’re still here for people who have been victimized,” McCampbell said. “Just because is not covered by Title IX doesn’t make it okay. It’s still something that, as an institution, we will be addressing.”
BAVO coordinator Liz Coulston elaborated on the current process of reporting an incident of sexual harassment or a Title IX violation.
“I think it’s important to know that at any point in that process, students have the opportunity to stop,” Coulston said. “If they do file a formal complaint, and then it goes further and they decide that it’s too much for them and don’t want to continue, they don’t have to continue. So you do still have that power and you do still have that choice. No matter what you choose, the College is going to support you and we’re going to support you.”
While the Title IX provisions will not explicitly change the way that BAVO advocates for victims on campus, the student-led group will work to provide transparency about the changes to reporting to students. BAVO student leader senior Elizabeth Day mentioned a new educational committee for the office that will incorporate Title IX and other information into the first-year common course.
“We are trying to stay active on social media because we know that’s a good way to reach everyone and communicate details that might be missed or create a safe space to learn about that information,” Day said.
At first, Day said she was upset to learn about the new changes to Title IX and their focus on cross-examination rather than helping victims. Although Saint Mary’s is rooted in the Catholic Church, she says that her experience with BAVO has helped her understand the institution’s commitment to helping survivors of harassment and assault.