Op-ed submission: Addressing sexual misconduct

We can do better

Jessica Kennedy and Kim Webb | Title IX coordinator and Director of RSVP Center

Far too many of our students experience sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual harassment. This challenge is real. It is substantial. And it calls for a thorough and thoughtful response focused on prevention, support and adjudication, much of which is handled through Washington University’s Title IX Office and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention (RSVP) Center.

As Chancellor Mark Wrighton shared following the recent announcement about changes in federal Title IX enforcement, the University is as determined as ever to build on the progress we have made since 2010 and to continue to intensify our focus and strengthen our Title IX processes and programs. How we go about doing so is key.

We’ve started by listening.

Last month, our offices hosted a series of conversations with students about the way in which the University addresses sexual misconduct. We wanted to learn through your observations and experiences and hear your suggestions for improvement. Each session was facilitated by fellow students, allowing us to fully engage and really take in what was shared. All of the feedback is being taken very seriously.

The conversations were open, candid and gut-wrenching. They reflected the deeply emotional, painful reality of sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual harassment. And they helped us to hone in on high priority areas for improvement.

The following five important themes emerged from the listening sessions. For each, we have identified specific action we can take, now, to respond.

First, we need to shorten the timeline for Title IX investigations. This is something we are extremely concerned about and that we intend to address, without compromising fairness or thoroughness in our investigations. We have added staff to the Title IX Office to better manage the caseload. We also plan to:

Clarify the role of attorneys representing complainants and respondents to avoid unnecessary delays.

Allow more than one investigator to work on a case, especially if it involves multiple witnesses.

Set panel interview dates and adhere to the schedule, barring substantial extenuating circumstances.

Do a better job of communicating the status of investigations, especially with complainants and respondents.

Second, we need to enhance and make it easier to access services and support for impacted students. This begins with the basics: making sure that we have adequate resources for counseling and other emotional support. RSVP now has two confidential counselors available to our students. Student Health Services (SHS), Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (S.A.R.A.H.), Uncle Joe’s and others provide important support, as well. However, there likely is more to be done and we are looking into further expansion of these services. We also plan to:

Communicate to faculty—directly from the Office of the Provost—the importance of providing reasonable accommodations for impacted students. This will help to clarify the University’s expectations and ensure a more consistent approach.

Make sure that students know how to contact local legal resources for support as complainants or respondents, if desired.

Third, we need to increase transparency about the prevalence of sexual misconduct at the University and about our Title IX investigation process. This, in turn, will increase awareness of the challenge and also make it easier for students to understand how investigations are handled. As a start, beginning immediately, while safeguarding the confidentiality of personally identifiable information, we will publish on the Title IX website (titleix.wustl.edu) data about the number of University Sexual Assault Investigative Board (USAIB) investigations, the outcome of those investigations and other important considerations including the length of time it takes to complete investigations. We also plan to:

Better explain how we select members of the panels that consider Title IX complaints, how these volunteers are trained, and how we recruit them.

Clarify the role of the University’s Office of General Counsel, which is to ensure that University rules and procedures are followed during the investigation process.

Do a better job of promoting the Title IX website and other sources of important information for students.

Certify that written work submitted by complainants and respondents is their own.

Fourth, we need to increase trauma-informed training. We plan to enhance current training to include everyone with responsibility for any aspect of a Title IX case, including the provost and the vice chancellor for student affairs. We also plan to extend this to SHS medical and counseling staff.

Fifth, we need to hold ourselves accountable. Annually, we will assess our programming and outcomes to identify areas of strength to build on and areas in need of improvement. We also plan to:

Regularly survey campus climate related to sexual misconduct.

Seek feedback from those who participate in our Title IX process.

Continue to encourage open dialogue and solicit suggestions, including through future listening sessions.

This action plan represents an important step forward. We are sincerely thankful to everyone who participated in the listening sessions and we are hungry for further input as we refine and build out the plan even further. If you have any thoughts, we would welcome them. You can reach Jessica at [email protected] or Kim at [email protected]

We know we can do better. Through strong partnership with our students and a firm commitment by the University, we know we will.

Editor’s Note: In the original version of this op-ed, the full name of the RSVP Center was misstated as the “Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.” The piece has been updated to reflect that the ‘R’ stands for “Relationship,” not “Rape.”