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Rice’s Title IX policy-making must be transparent and inclusive

Photos courtesy Sarah Park, Alyssa Cahoy, Alissa Kono, Krithika Shamanna, Emily Duffus and Aliza Brown

By Alissa Kono , Krithika Shamanna , Sarah Park , Alyssa Cahoy , Emily Duffus and Aliza Brown     7/13/20 2:40pm

Content warning: This opinion contains references to sexual violence.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and concision by Thresher editors. 

We are deeply concerned about Rice’s current policy-writing process regarding the release of a new Title IX policy, due August 14. Since Students Transforming Rice Into a Violence-Free Environment and the Student Association released a list of expectations in May, the administration has privately responded, but has not stated any firm commitments from the administration beyond those required by law to ensure a safe and equitable process. Based on our observations and concerns with the administration's response, we feel there are issues in the following areas: coronavirus accommodations, publication of data, transparency and equitable representation. 

First, Rice must contextualize coronavirus policies within the existing Title IX and Student Code of Conduct rules and protections. Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman’s Fall 2020 announcement email to the student body specifies that “floor access in each college is restricted to floor residents only,” and “no visitors or overnight guests are permitted.” In the case of sexual harassment where one student visits a restricted area or stays overnight in another room, Rice should investigate these cases as Title IX or Code of Conduct violations, not breaches of coronavirus-related policies. The COVID Court, composed of undergraduates, should not punish survivors coming forward with complaints. 

Additionally, as Sid Richardson College students are moved, we are concerned that survivors may be forced into close proximity with their abusers. Despite potential housing limits, Rice must provide the means for students to request housing away from problematic individuals. 

Second, we request the ongoing release of data on sexual misconduct and Title IX violations, including retrospective data from at least the past five years. The Rice community’s access to this information would ensure transparency in Student Judicial Programs processes, help properly allocate resources and reveal areas for improvement in the new Title IX policy. The university has resisted requests for this data due to claims of confidentiality under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. However, this is not a valid excuse because data can be anonymized and released as an aggregate to maintain confidentiality. Other states and institutions have policies that require a release of similar data; for example, Minnesota law requires postsecondary institutions to annually report and publicly release statistics on campus sexual assault. 

Transparency about the processes of Rice’s SJP and Title IX offices will ensure that students feel comfortable seeking out their help. Guidelines allowing universities to conceal their data are meant to absolve schools of responsibility. Rice must be held accountable for its reporting processes through a high standard of transparency. 

Third, Rice administration must increase transparency about Title IX policy-making by distributing public statements and releasing biweekly updates on the drafting committees’ work. The onus to organize and host Title IX information sessions on Rice’s response to new federal regulations so far has fallen entirely on student leadership. 

There has been a lack of communication on policy decisions and minimal transparency regarding the makeup of the group tasked with writing Rice’s new policy — the original group was composed of four male administrators, three of them white. Allison Vogt, associate dean of students, was later added to the steering committee after pressure from students. This lack of diversity is unacceptable, as sexual violence disproportionately affects non-binary individuals and women, particularly Black women and other women of color. To ensure Rice’s diverse population of students and faculty are represented, we call on the Rice administration to publicize the membership of this group and diversify the steering committee. Rice must also publicly commit to diversifying offices tasked with implementing the new adjudication and resolution systems.

We call for Rice to widely distribute the draft policy to all students, staff and faculty. Further, we urge Rice to concurrently release proposed language for related Code of Conduct policies for violations that no longer fall under Title IX, such as off-campus incidents and sexual misconduct that does not fit the definition of “sexual harassment” as defined by the new rules. This is urgent as many students move off campus for the upcoming semester. Review of these by the entire Rice community is crucial to ensure the policy is as inclusive and effective as possible. 

Fourth, as the new Title IX regulations push investigations to mimic criminal cases, we are concerned about securing equitable access to qualified legal representation. When the new rules go into effect, reporting and responding students will require representation in the form of “advocates” or “advisors” in the hearing process, including during cross-examination. If one person has an untrained advocate while the other has an experienced lawyer, cross-examination can reveal disparities in representation, potentially leading to an unjust decision. Rice must commit to providing and funding attorneys for these students to avoid the case of one student being represented by an individual without any legal training. 

The administration’s approach to providing representation has been insufficient. Rice has refused to publicly commit to providing attorneys or financial support and has suggested utilizing local law students instead. Law students, who may lack the requisite Title IX expertise, are not an equitable solution to an imbalance of well-funded legal counsel. In addition to expanding outreach, the steering committee must identify a sustainable funding source and construct a concrete plan for both parties involved to have equitable access to representation. 

To secure the commitments above, there are many steps the Rice community can take. Attend a town hall with members of the Title IX steering committee to voice your concerns and ask questions or email administrators directly. Richard Baker, Rice’s Title IX Coordinator, can be reached at rab20@rice.edu. You can also fill out a template and directly email Rice administrators via Carrd

When Rice’s draft Title IX policy is released on July 15, we encourage you to connect with the SAFE Office: Interpersonal Misconduct Prevention and Support, a STRIVE liaison or an off-campus organization such as Know Your IX to learn more about steps you can take to secure a safe and equitable Title IX policy. 

Sarah Park, Alyssa Cahoy, Alissa Kono, Krithika Shamanna and Emily Duffus are STRIVE liaisons, and Aliza Brown is a member of the STRIVE executive board.

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