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Bridging the gaps: Student activists aim to protect survivors in face of new Title IX policy

Illustrated by Chloe Xu

By Morgan Gage     9/1/20 9:59pm

In early May, as a challenging spring semester came to an end, the Department of Education released the final version of a new Title IX policy, leaving school administrations across the country scrambling to adjust their own Title IX policies to reflect the federal policy before an Aug. 14 deadline amidst navigating a global pandemic. With these new rules came a slew of student advocacy at Rice as students pushed administrators to implement the new policy in a way that minimizes the harmful effects the updated federal guidelines have for survivors of sexual assault.

With these guideline changes, faculty and staff at schools are no longer considered mandatory reporters or required to report incidences of reported Title IX misconduct nationwide, although Rice employees are considered mandatory reporters under Texas legislation. The definition of harassment was rewritten as conduct that “effectively denied” someone access to an education, whereas it was previously defined as conduct that interfered with someone receiving an education. Live case hearings are now mandated to include cross-examinations of each party, a move that student activists criticized due to cross-examination’s potential of re-traumatizing survivors through already stressful hearings. 

Many student activists, primarily members of Students Transforming Rice into a Violence-free Environment and the Student Association Senate, anticipated the release of the new federal guidelines for policy concerning gender based discrimination and interpersonal violence for schools across the United States. Aliza Brown, advocacy coordinator for STRIVE, was in touch with the Department of Education even before the new policy was released, after she learned about some of the policies the Department was considering from members of the SAFE Office: Interpersonal Misconduct Prevention and Support.

“I wrote a comment back to the Department of Education, as a lot of people did, telling them why these were horrible ideas,” Brown, a Will Rice College junior, said. “When they released the actual plan, I was overall disturbed. It is a definite step backwards for survivors’ rights and makes campuses across the country less safe.”

From there, it became a question for student advocates of what Rice could do to bridge the gaps left by the new guidelines, according to STRIVE’s associate director Sara Emami, and they began to center conversations around how to make the policy ultimately implemented better suited to protecting survivors’ rights. 

“A lot of things that people I know had commented against were still in the policy,” Emami, a Brown College junior, said. “We were trying to figure out what was strictly federal policy that we would have to adhere to and where were areas where we could influence the Rice policy and see how we could make it so it was most supportive for survivors at Rice.”

When the committee to write Rice’s new Title IX policy was formed, an undergraduate and graduate student representative were included to help provide a student perspective on the policy. However, Anastasia Newheart, the graduate representative on the policy writing committee, said she felt a need for more student feedback in the process.

“The most important thing is for students to be directly involved with the process,” Newheart said. “I was the only graduate student involved in this process, and, of course, I cannot represent the perspective of every single graduate student.”

Izzie Karohl, undergraduate representative on the Title IX taskforce and head of the SA’s Interpersonal Violence Policy Committee said one of the continuous challenges for activists and policy writers alike was contending with the turnaround between the federal government’s release of the new policy on May 6 and the deadline for Rice to implement the new policy on Aug. 14. 

“The timing just felt a little bit cruel,” Karohl, a Will Rice junior, said. “It’s almost like [the Department of Education] didn’t care if the policies were well developed because of how much time we had to do them.”

Time constraints were also an issue within the meetings themselves, which only lasted for an hour each week for a committee of 15 people, according to Karohl. 

“It meant that some voices took up a lot of air time, and it meant that others didn’t,” Karohl said. “It was hard in the moments where you realize that you weren’t going to get your word in or really have full time to debate an idea.”

In addition to the presence of an undergraduate and graduate student representative on the policy writing committee, students were able to weigh in on the policy through regular conversations held over Zoom between members of STRIVE Executive Council, representatives from the SA, and Rice’s Title IX Coordinator Richard Baker. However, some students who participated in those meetings said they felt ignored.

“It was good to have a line of communication between us and Dr. Baker, but gradually we started to feel that our requests were not being heard,” STRIVE Executive Director Maddy Scannell said. “Most notably, we felt like Rice did not communicate to the student body what was going on at all.”

Throughout the process, some student organizers said they felt like they needed to lead communication with the student body in the absence of transparent communication from Rice.

“We only knew [about the policies Rice was considering] because we were in the meeting, which was frustrating. We also felt like there were no kinds of attempts to solicit feedback from the student body undertaken by the administration,” Scannell, a Martel College senior, said. “We were constantly pulling teeth to set up town halls. We asked for a survey to be sent out. We asked for lots of things to be sent out that just didn’t happen. The burden was being put on us for these things rather than having it come from administration.”

According to Baker, one of the first documents the Title IX task force considered was the SA and STRIVE’s statement on the federal Title IX regulations, and there was broad agreement among members of the task force on six of their eight concerns outlined in the statement, including the standard of evidence and the scope of conduct that would be prohibited at Rice. The task force hosted three town halls to gather student feedback, and after publishing the policy and the rationale for writing it the way they did, they solicited more feedback via email, said Baker.

“I am sorry to hear that some students were frustrated with us, because our effort to include students throughout the process of writing our new Title IX policy was thoughtful and robust,” Baker said. “Student input was truly integral to our work and to the policy and processes that resulted.”

Beyond a lack of transparency on behalf of the administration, student activists had a number of concerns with some specific policies Rice implemented, and others they didn’t. On July 16, STRIVE released a statement on ways they felt Rice’s draft Title IX policy  was insufficient. One such policy was a suggested 60-75 day time limit on the length that a sexual assault investigation and hearing can last, which was ultimately not included in Rice’s policy to the disappointment of activists, according to Brown.

“The reasoning behind why we asked for this [time limit] was because we already know that these new rules are going to make it a more re-traumatizing process for survivors,” Brown said. “We were trying to minimize that. We wanted survivors to not have cases that drag on for long periods of time, that become further traumatizing.”

Even with the official Title IX policy now in effect, student activists are still doing work, especially concerning the yet to be finished Title IX procedures, which is a separate document that explains how the new legal guidelines will be implemented at Rice. The administration has yet to release that document.

“That’s a big first step. Can we get into that procedure? Can we make sure the specifics are trauma-informed and helpful for survivors at Rice?” Emami said. “The next step for our advocacy is making sure that students are aware that this policy is in place, how it changes and how we can support students through this process.”

In regard to the formation of the new Title IX procedures, Scannell said a key concern is the availability of equitable legal representation for students  who are selecting advisors for the process.

“We’ve consistently been pushing for Rice to fund attorneys for students going through the process, and they’ve repeatedly alluded to a list that exists of pro bono advisors which includes apparently some Rice alumni who are attorneys,” Scannell said. “But that’s not good enough for us. If one side is hiring an attorney with specialization in Title IX, having some dusty tax lawyer who graduated from Rice is not equitable representation.”

Another procedural aspect STRIVE is keeping an eye on, said Brown, is how informal resolutions, or an agreement settled on by both parties outside of a hearing process, will work under the new policy. Informal resolutions were not previously allowed by Title IX, and Brown said STRIVE plans on being involved in defining the procedures surrounding them. 

“We really need to work on ensuring we have safe informal resolution processes,” Brown said. “It’s typically something less serious, like making sure a responding student cannot go into a reporting student’s residential college, but we really want to make sure that this informal resolution process actually brings justice and is organized effectively by Rice in the safest and most appropriate way.”

As the fall semester unfolds, the STRIVE Executive Council wants to increase overall transparency and communication between the student body and Rice administration concerning interpersonal violence and Title IX hearings. Brown said the group is pushing for Rice to release aggregate data of interpersonal violence statistics and case results. They’re also hoping to lead other institutions towards similar efforts to protect survivors.

“Something that we’re really trying to do is to make sure that Rice is setting an example for other universities regarding effectively upholding survivors’ rights,” Brown said. “We want to be the gold standard of helping survivors and making sure that they are able to continue their education seriously.”

In the face of frustrations they have with the administration’s handling of Title IX, student advocates are also doing work beyond the policy and procedures themselves. Education on topics such as active and ongoing consent and what a healthy relationship should look like is key to decreasing incidences of interpersonal violence across campus, according to Karohl.

“I’ve learned that for Rice, education, prevention, support are all just paramount,” Karohl said. “This is one of those things that coming into college I was like, ‘This could never, never happen — not to me, not to my friends, not to anyone.’  But it does.”

Over the summer, STRIVE and the SA released a graphic that summarized early student recommendations to protect survivors’ rights. STRIVE circulated a graphic that summarized the impact of the changes specifically in regards to Rice’s final policy and student code of conduct. Karohl also led a teach-in to review major Title IX guideline changes on May 18. Later that summer, she released a graphic that reviewed some student priorities before one of the town halls with STRIVE, the SA and select Rice University administrators. 

Although advocates believe there is more to be done on Rice’s part to foster a safe environment, Scannell says the policy itself still has strong protections in place.

“Even though we have criticized the administration, they’ve put forth policy that we think will still protect students, staff and faculty moving forward,” Scannell said. “So, even though reporting will look different, there’s still strong protections in place that shouldn’t discourage people from reporting.”

Whether students report or not, Rice still offers a host of resources for survivors of interpersonal violence that can be utilized by students on or off campus, including the SAFE Office and STRIVE liaisons, which Emami highly encourages students to reach out to for any help.

“Regardless of how the official policy has changed, none of the support structures that are there for survivors have changed. The SAFE Office is still equally as accessible. STRIVE liaisons are equally as accessible. If anything, we’re going to try to ramp up our visibility, because we know that this hearing may be a scary process,” Emami said. “We are still there for you as much as if not more than we were before. If you’re worried about the new policy, you should come speak to us, because we are the ones that have been in the process, and we’re more than happy to explain what’s changed and walk through what your new options are, or just talk to you if you want to talk to someone.”

Disclaimer: Morgan Gage is a STRIVE liaison.

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