By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Public universities across the state are finding new ways to reevaluate their Title IX anti-discrimination programs to prevent and reduce sexual misconduct on campuses.
The law prohibits sexual discrimination in educational programs funded by the federal government and has recently drawn intense public interest amid complaints that many U.S. campuses have been lax in complying.
Campuses each have their own ways of fighting sexual harassment and assault that include peer advocates, education at orientation about services available, and online lists of services and phone numbers.
Campus climate surveys are one of the newer tools for colleges to better understand where they can improve their compliance.
“Because we know that very few people come forward to report sexual assault, Grand Valley continually and regularly uses confidential campus climate assessments to obtain data on how to make changes related to sexual assault,” said Jesse Bernal, the vice president of inclusion and equity at Grand Valley State University.
“What we know about sexual assault on college campuses is that 20 percent of women and 6 percent of men will be assaulted during their college career, and less than 12 percent of those cases are reported,” Bernal said.
Melody Werner, Eastern Michigan University Title IX coordinator, said, “The national statistics tell us that sexual assaults are vastly underreported.”
“If you take that (20 percent) statistic and multiply it by the number of students on your campus, then you come up with the number that you want to be reporting. If you assume it’s happening, then you want those report numbers to go up,” she said.
Werner estimates that her office has received more reports so far for the 2018-19 academic year than at the same point in previous years.
“We hope and believe that the number will continue to go up as more employees understand their responsibility as mandatory reporters and as more individuals believe that their accusation will be taken seriously by the office and the university,” Werner said.
Werner became Eastern’s Title IX coordinator in 2015. In 2016, she said, she began changing the school’s policies.
“Prior to Eastern hiring me as their Title IX coordinator, all sexual misconduct by students was a conduct violation,” Werner said. “If anyone was accused of it, or anyone said they had been sexually assaulted, then they would go through the student conduct process like any student with any other violation.
“The process involved throwing the parties together in a hearing,” Werner said. “That is not best practice, and that is not what Title IX guidance tells us to do.”
The scope and application of Title IX is determined through a combination of court rulings and federal guidance. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has issued 25 documents clarifying how colleges should apply the law.
All federally funded educational programs must have a Title IX coordinator for enforcement and education.
“We’re responsible any time students, faculty or staff is involved,” Felicia Crawford, Western Michigan University Title IX coordinator, said.
“What I and my staff find difficult is that, despite the best efforts to support and maintain safety for the parties involved, you’re going to wind up with one party that is unhappy,” Crawford said.
Another challenge for Title IX offices comes when complaints fall short of a civil rights violation or lack enough evidence to take action.
“The perception is that if you do nothing, you’re sweeping things under the rug and the university doesn’t care,” Crawford said.
“We really have to have a preponderance of evidence to have a finding” of sexual discrimination, Crawford said. “If we don’t have that evidence, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It just means that there isn’t enough evidence to support it.”
On the other side, she said, “When we do find that there is a violation of our policy, then the responsible party feels that there is an overreach by Title IX.”
The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act also means that universities can’t provide information on students involved in Title IX cases.
“When people are asking questions about a case, we’re not able to answer,” Crawford said.
University officials said they take measures to protect all their students from sexual harassment and discrimination.
For example, Grand Valley, Eastern and Central Michigan University each provide information to incoming students during orientation about Title IX and how to contact the university’s coordinator.
At Grand Valley, Theresa Rowland began changing university policy after starting as Title IX coordinator in 2015.
“We created an online learning module that specifically educates on policy definitions, created training for employees on how to report sexual harassment and built a team of investigators who are trained and certified in Title IX investigations,” Rowland said.
At Central, a pioneer in sexual harassment support services, a primary resource for students is the Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates (SAPA) organization with about 50 volunteers who receive an average of 60 hours of training annually. Advocates work in teams to respond to about 300 calls a year.
“Providing confidential services has been instrumental in making it comfortable for folks to reach out at a time when they might be uncomfortable and scared,” Brooke Oliver-Hempenstall, Central’s director of sexual aggression services, said.
She oversees the peer advocates who have programs covering stalking, rape culture, domestic violence, sexual aggression in the LGBTQ+ community and orientation for incoming students.
“Whether they are considering reporting or want to go to counseling, they know that they can contact SAPA and process out what their options are,” Oliver-Hempenstall said.
By CASEY HULL