Over the past year, students have been active in vocalizing a need for change to the University’s sexual assault policy. In an attempt to bring these conversations together, Student Advisory Committee on Title IX co-chairs Rachel Verner ’15 and Nikita Rajgopal ’17 held a forum on Sunday, Nov. 16 on Title IX policy and procedure, focusing particularly on alternative models for the school’s sexual misconduct policy.
The evening started with an hour-long information session covering the University’s current sexual misconduct policy and two proposed alternative models. Then, various student leaders on campus facilitated group discussion sections. Students could choose to join either a large group discussion section after the information session or to discuss sexual misconduct policy alternatives in a smaller group setting.
Verner and Rajgopal led the introductory piece of the discussion, beginning by defining Title IX.
“Title IX ensures equal funding and educational experience for all genders,” Verner said. “It is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions. Gender identity, gender expression, and all other complaints related to gender are investigated under Title IX.”
Rajgopal asserted that while the University is technically in accordance with Title IX standards, she believes that the current policy in place for sexual misconduct is far from perfect.
“[Wesleyan’s sexual misconduct policy] abides by federal Title IX standards, but still needs a lot of work,” Rajgopal said. “The best way to do that is get student input because we don’t want to confine this conversation to a small number of individuals, we want a larger, public opinion.”
The information session was organized around a handout that walked attendees through the University’s current sexual misconduct policy. The handout divided the University’s current policy into three phases: Investigation, Adjudication, and Sanctioning.
In the current investigation format, one investigator is assigned to each report or case. Both parties involved have the right to a process advisor of their choice, and the investigator may elect to interview the complainant, the respondent, and any witnesses.
In the adjudication phase, the Dean of Students determines if charges are going to be filed, which would lead to a University hearing. The case is then heard by an administrative panel of two male and two female administrators, faculty or staff. One panel member must be from the Office of the Dean of Students to ensure that protocol is followed.
According to the handout, the third phase of any current sexual misconduct case is sanctioning, in which the panel convenes following the hearing and determines what sanction is most appropriate based on the evidence presented. At this phase, both parties have the right to appeal the decision.
Students in the audience expressed anger that panel members receive no formal training. Verner was surprised at the number of questions asked during the information session, but was happy with the way that the audience was able to learn from each other.
“Many Title IX people were in the room, and I valued the way that they were able to help me respond to some of the more detailed questions and fill in my own knowledge gaps,” Verner said.
Verner noted what she perceives as current downsides to the University’s current system.
“There is a small pool of people who are called upon to serve on this panel, and those same people hear all of these kinds of cases,” Verner said. “Also, victims are compelled to retell their story several times, which can lead to re-traumatization, and the folks who resolve this conflict are by no means experts on the subject.”
Verner and Rajgopal offered two alternative models to the current system. In the first, one (or two) individual(s) complete the investigation and determine the finding/sanction. This would minimize the number of times the story has to be told and make the investigation move more quickly, but would mean that that the final decision would come from only one or two people. In the second alternative model, one or two individuals complete the investigation and submit recommended sanction, and a panel reviews the investigative information and suggested sanction, confirming or opposing the decision. This prevents the complainant from having to retell hir story more than necessary.
These alternative models sparked further discussion by the audience at the information session. Queer Resource Center Intern Aidan Bardos ’17 commented on the audience’s ability to expose the flaws in both alternative models.
“I think that the discussion…was really eye-opening to all the faults in the proposed alternatives,” Bardos said. “Our opinions are very critical for this to be fixed, and I think [students] have the answers.”
The second part of the evening allowed students to divide into smaller group sections to discuss potential changes to the University’s sexual misconduct policy. Facilitators were chosen from various student leadership organizations to mediate these discussions.
Bardos, also participating as a facilitator, pointed out that many facilitators were not well-versed on Title IX policy.
“What’s good is that different groups can take the discussion in different directions,” Bardos said. “That can be helpful because they can cover different topics. I think it’s hard because the facilitators were not very well educated on Title IX policy. Having someone in the group who was really knowledgeable to answer questions would have been very helpful.”
Rebecca Hutman ’17, a member of the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s Academic Affairs Committee, was impressed with the forum as a part of a continual discussion at the University about sexual misconduct policy.
“The forum was important and powerful in the wake of the discussion last spring,” Hutman said. “Six months ago, we were talking about the nature of the problem of sexual assault policy on campus, and tonight, we were actually brainstorming ways to fix the problem. That’s exciting. I was also deeply impressed by the depth of information provided by students on the current sexual assault policy, and the quality of the small group discussions afterwards. It felt like we were talking about making changes that could actually happen.”
Claire Wright ’16, a member of both the Student Advisory Committee on Title IX and the University’s Title IX Policy Committee (the former is composed mostly of students, and the latter is devised of a few students, faculty, and staff members who review title IX policy at the University), emphasized that both are seeking to rewrite University policy effective for next semester and beyond.
“The [Title IX Policy] committee is made up of a few people from each piece of the University looking at policy,” Wright said. “Specifically, we are looking at sanctioning and what leads to sanctioning and what the norms for sanctions are. Personally, I feel like this is an issue that has touched me and many of the people around me. It’s really important that students have an opportunity to shape how the university responds.”
Wright also commented on the clarity of the forum’s information session and the group discussion portion, and emphasized the importance of the student feedback compiled during the small group discussions.
“I thought it was a clever layout because people got information about the processes so that they could then think about the questions that the student committees are thinking about,” Wright said. “Hopefully everyone who left felt like they really had a voice and knows that the feedback they gave is going to be used and will certainly influence how the university will shape their methodology.”