The Title IX Final Rule, a 2,033-page series of federal regulations around campus-based sexual misconduct announced by the federal government on May 6, 2020, went into effect at the University on Friday, Aug. 14. The regulations bring about significant changes to the Office for Equity & Inclusion and the role and capabilities of the former Office of Survivor Advocacy & Community Education (SACE), which was renamed The Office of Support, Healing, Activism, and Prevention Education (SHAPE) in a direct response to the Final Rule.
“The Final Rule improves the clarity and transparency of the requirements for how schools must respond to sexual harassment under Title IX so that every complainant receives appropriate support, respondents are treated as responsible only after receiving due process and fundamental fairness, and school officials serve impartially without bias for or against any party,” the U.S. Department of Education (ED) Title IX Final Rule Overview reads.
The Office for Equity & Inclusion has updated its Sexual Misconduct Policy in response to the Final Rule, including acknowledging sexual harassment as discrimination.
“For the first time, the Department’s Title IX regulations recognize that sexual harassment, including sexual assault, is unlawful sex discrimination,” the Final Rule Overview reads. “The Department previously addressed sexual harassment only through guidance documents, which are not legally binding and do not have the force and effect of law. Now, the Department’s regulations impose important legal obligations on school districts, colleges, and universities, requiring a prompt response to reports of sexual harassment.”
The Final Rule also updates what the University recognizes as sexual harassment and requires live hearings to decide all alleged sexual misconduct cases. The University had previously implemented and then moved away from the live hearing model in 2017.
“Wesleyan employed the live hearing model for a significant period of time, until it became clear that the pitfalls associated with that model outweighed its usefulness,” the University wrote in its public comment to the ED. “While investigations were completed and reports issued prior to the initiation of a hearing, the hearing nonetheless became a springboard for attempts to introduce new evidence, witnesses, and testimony of disputed evidence.”
The new federal regulations have also imposed limitations on the newly-renamed SHAPE Office’s previous capabilities to advocate for survivors of sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence. SHAPE Director Johanna DeBari and the SHAPE Student Advisory Board chose to rename the office to align the title with the office’s updated role following the new Title IX final rule.
According to DeBari, the regulations have limited the SHAPE Office’s ability to assist in the processes of investigation and adjudication by imposing a stricter divide between the SHAPE Office and the Title IX Office. While the SACE Office was previously able to assist and support survivors as they went through the process of reporting to the Title IX Office, the new regulations require that all involved have equal access to support. Thus, the SHAPE Office can no longer serve as advocates for survivors who decide to report incidents because their actions would be perceived as inherently biased and offering support not given to the respondent.
This change has had a significant impact on DeBari’s role as SHAPE Director. Prior to the implementation of the Final Rule, DeBari served as a “survivor advocate,” supporting survivors through the reporting process. Under the Final Rule, DeBari can no longer be involved once a student begins the reporting process.
“If someone wants to make a report through the Title IX process, I can’t be connected to them in any way, shape, or form,” DeBari said. “So, whereas before I would be able to be present in meetings with like Debbie Colucci as the Title IX coordinator, or I could have accompanied someone to PSafe [Public Safety] to make a report in connection to Title IX, I can’t do that anymore because that…puts the survivor who’s making the report in jeopardy of having their process overturned because now there is stronger ground for a respondent to say this process was not equitable. And, the federal government also has the layer of if universities don’t follow these new regulations, they could have federal funding revoked.”
Despite this change, both DeBari and Assistant Vice President for Equity & Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator Debbie Colucci are optimistic that the SHAPE Office will continue to be a valuable resource for survivors in the Wesleyan community.
“Though Johanna [DeBari] will no longer support students through the investigation/adjudication processes, she will still provide supportive resources to survivors and those who have experienced harm, including serving as a confidential resource and providing general information and options for care and support,” Colucci wrote in an email to The Argus.
Due to the pandemic, the office will be fully remote this semester and will focus primarily on reestablishing itself as a resource in the Wesleyan community for both on-campus and remote students. According to DeBari, the SHAPE office will also use this time to become more involved with anti-racist work and consider how this can influence how they best serve the Wesleyan community.
“I’m hopeful that, even in the ways that we’re not physically connected, I can still translate the vibes of my office,” DeBari said. “I used to have…what I hope was an inviting space. I’m trying to recreate that virtually and to let people know that they don’t need to have a specific reason to connect with me.”
This week, as a part of Wesleyan’s Week of Welcome, the SHAPE Office held a “Meet the SHAPE Office” event on Wednesday, Sept. 2. DeBari will also hold weekly virtual drop-in hours on Tuesdays from 12 to 1 p.m. for anyone interested in learning more about or connecting with the office.
“Now I’m just trying to see what’s the path forward,” DeBari said. “How we can still keep showing up and doing the work of supporting survivors in a way that is meaningful, feels accessible, and is supportive.”
Hallie Sternberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @halsternberg.