SU and Title Mine host town hall explaining WU’s Title IX guidance for student groups

| Senior News Editor

Student Union and Title Mine, a survivor-focused activist group on campus, held a town hall, Feb. 4, with Washington University administrators to discuss new guidelines for student groups regarding Title IX issues in light of the Trump administration’s changes to federal policy.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued new federal Title IX guidelines over the summer increasing protections for those accused of sexual misconduct, prompting backlash and condemnation from a number of higher education institutions and civil rights groups. These guidelines have not yet been repealed by the Biden administration, although he promised in November to do so.

Gage Skidmore | Creative Commons

Since the new regulations went into effect in August, administrators have struggled to rewrite Washington University’s policies in a way that provides the highest level of support possible to survivors while still following federal rules.

“I think we can all agree that the guidance doesn’t feel good, and doesn’t feel like it serves students in the way that we wanted to,” Director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center Kim Webb said. “But I also think that we have to be really careful to follow the guidance so that we don’t put students who are going through a process in a worse place.”

The University’s guidelines encourage student groups to develop clear expectations for behavior of members as well as direct steps for accountability in the case that these expectations are not met. However, these guidelines limit the actual actions that student groups are permitted to take against members accused of any type of sexual misconduct.

“In accordance with federal Title IX regulations, if the allegations against a member involve interpersonal violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct, student groups may not impose sanctions or take any action with respect to the membership status (e.g., suspension, removal, etc.) of the member without the member being found responsible after a University investigation through the applicable University office,” the guidelines read.

While a University investigation is being conducted, student groups will have no avenue to take any action against an individual accused of sexual misconduct. Additionally, if a survivor chooses not to open an investigation, the same restrictions will apply.

However, according to Director of Campus Life Leslie Heusted, student groups can address these restrictions by including sections in their constitutions that mandate punishments for those who fail to disclose that they have been accused of sexual misconduct.

“We suggest some wording that can be placed in a constitution or a bylaw [that] would be an expectation requiring student members to acknowledge or report if they…have been reported to have performed anything against [the] Code of Conduct,” Heusted said. “If a member decides that they want to be a member of your group, and they agree to that as an expectation and then they choose not to share that information, that could be subject to some consequences that are spelled out in your constitution.”

Title IX Director Jessica Kennedy also added that in certain cases where the immediate health and safety of a student was determined to be at risk, the University could step in to use “emergency removal” for the accused individual.

“That’s an area where we would not necessarily have to wait for the completion of the grievance process,” Kennedy said. “But we would have to be able to make that very specific finding, where it’s no longer just enough to be about psychological harm. It [using emergency removal] requires this threat to physical health and safety, arising from the allegations of sexual harassment.”

Kennedy also mentioned that student group leaders can “request” that a member accused of sexual misconduct leave their group, but added that attempts to “pressure” that member to leave would violate the University’s guidelines.

Student Union President and town hall host junior Ranen Miao expressed concern over treatment of survivors under these guidelines, although he acknowledged that they were the best that administrators could offer without violating federal policy,

“I think that [the guidelines] really are not trauma-informed and they really increase the difficulty for survivors to come forward and report their cases, both in terms of the reforms to the Title IX reporting process and in terms of what universities can do to hold perpetrators accountable and making sure that there are sufficient protections in place to protect protect and defend students on our campus,” Miao said.

Even if President Biden decides to repeal the Trump administration’s guidelines, Kennedy estimated that it could take up to two years to fully repeal them and put new ones in place. If the guidelines are not fully repealed, Kennedy said that one likely scenario would be that the Department of Education might indicate its intention not to enforce certain harmful parts of the current guidelines, which would put Washington University in a precarious situation.

“I don’t know that the University will make any significant changes without those regulations being changed,” Kennedy said. “And it might be something where we’d have to read between the lines. And we would do that on a case-by-case basis and try to make a decision about what we saw as harm that we thought could be easily eliminated versus the things that we think we should leave in place…So it’s something that we would evaluate if and when that time comes.”

Regardless of what path the University takes, Miao said that student activists, especially Title Mine and the University Survivors Movement, would not stop advocating for stronger guidelines.

“Our top priority would be restoring all the previous [Obama era] protections,” Miao said. “But we would still want to lobby the federal government to enhance these protections, because on campuses across America, there are students who are still not being heard. And there aren’t strict enough incentives for universities to fully conform to those guidelines. We want to make sure that we’re able to…push for much stronger regulations.”

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