Emma Taylor ’21 said that during their sophomore year at Ithaca College, they were sexually assaulted. When Taylor sought help from the Title IX office, an arduous process unfolded that resulted in their alleged assaulter being found not guilty, despite the Title IX office having evidence of text messages where he confesses.
Taylor said that after being assaulted, they struggled with their mental health and academics as a theater arts major.
“I was in classes but I wasn’t absorbing anything,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t retaining any information. I wasn’t learning or turning in assignments. I was just literally trying to stay alive. … I withdrew myself and never got to perform in school because I was too afraid.”
Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972 that aims to ensure that all educational programs and activities that receive federal funding are free from discrimination on the basis of sex. One piece of the law regulates how schools handle cases of sexual misconduct.
Taylor is one of many students who have gone to Title IX looking for protection and a way to feel safe while finishing their education. If a respondent wins the hearing, accommodations can be made like removing the accused from classes they share with the survivor or altering housing assignments. Taylor is also one of many students who never won their hearing, never received protection and feels that the collegiate justice system has failed them. Title IX Coordinator Linda Koenig said there are currently six open investigations.
Taylor sent The Ithacan a screenshot of a text conversation they had Oct. 7, 2019 with the student who Taylor said assaulted them. In the conversation, he admitted to wrongdoing. Taylor sent the text messages to the Title IX office during the investigation, but said the accused never verbally confessed to Title IX.
“I feel like I assaulted you in some way for sure but I don’t even understand it you know,” the accused said in the text to Taylor. “But I really f—– up I know that.”
Taylor received a letter from the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards on May 4, 2020, detailing that the accused was found not guilty because there was a lack of evidence that the interaction was not consensual.
After struggling to finish their time at the college, Taylor graduated with a degree in theater arts but now works as a nanny because they said their diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) made an acting career impossible.
“I’m terrified of the idea of people looking at me,” Taylor said. “I don’t feel comfortable in the career that I got a f—— four-year degree in. … I am trying to do therapy and trying to not be dissociated all the time, but it’s pretty tough. So yeah, I’m not in theater right now. I wish I could be.”
Katie Newcomb, assistant director for the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, said any evidence collected during an investigation would be considered.
“I can’t really speak to hypotheticals because every case is so different that it would be extremely challenging to say why one piece of evidence may or may not have an impact on an outcome,” Newcomb said. “There’s a lot of factors that come into play in these hearing processes. And so it’s not just one message that’s sent. It’s looking at the totality of all the evidence that has been presented during the hearing.”
As a law, Title IX is subject to change based on who is leading the United States Department of Education (DOE). In 2017, Betsy DeVos, former Secretary of Education — appointed by former president Donald Trump — began to undo guidance made by Arne Duncan, secretary of the DOE from 2009–16, and John King Jr., secretary of the DOE from 2016–17, which had strengthened protections for survivors of sexual misconduct.
Sexual harassment was defined as “unwelcome conduct of sexual nature. It includes unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” according to the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. Under DeVos, what is considered sexual harassment by Title IX was narrowed and is currently defined as “any unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would find so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person equal educational access.”
The new regulations enacted by DeVos also discouraged reporting, minimized the responsibility of schools to respond to reports and implemented possibly distressing procedures, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
Students like sophomore Sophia Testani feel impacted by the limitations of Title IX.
Testani wrote a commentary for The Ithacan in February after her alleged harassers were found not guilty in her case hearing. She said that while working at a campus event as an orientation leader, her harassers, who were volunteering at the event, made sexually explicit comments about her body like “She has a nice rack. How much you think she can take?” Testani suffered a decline in mental health and said she stayed in the Guthrie Cortland Medical Center emergency room overnight in October 2021 because of a mental health crisis. According to a medical document given to The Ithacan by Testani, she was diagnosed with adjustment disorder — a mental health disorder caused by a stress trigger that the patient is not able to cope with.
Now, after an official investigation and a hearing, Testani said she must remove herself from educational opportunities at times in order to avoid having to see the defendants and is in a class with one of their friends.
“[Title IX] flipped my entire life upside down,” Testani said. “I barely heard from them throughout the whole investigative process and leading up to the hearing, which caused a lot of stress and anxiety for me. I think they could have been better about contacting me and letting me know where they were in the investigation, so I’m not flying blind trying to figure out what is going on.”
After Testani’s commentary was published, College Counselor Emily Rockett contacted Testani. Testani asked why she was told she did not need a lawyer but at her hearing found out both the respondents had lawyers. Testani shared with The Ithacan a voice recording she took of the conversation they had during an in-person meeting.
“Each party is entitled to bring an adviser of their choice,” Rockett said in the recording. “I will share with you that for the type of allegations that were an issue in your case it is highly unusual for respondents to bring an attorney.”
Koenig said she cannot respond to individual cases when asked about Testani’s case.
“I need to respect students’ privacy and I feel like anything I say may do the opposite of that,” Koenig said.
Title IX is not a criminal process. Therefore, if either a respondent or complainant hired an attorney, they would act as an adviser, not as a lawyer. Koenig said any party involved in a Title IX case can choose to have an adviser like a parent, friend, college-trained adviser or lawyer, but none are required.
She said the role of Title IX is only to collect evidence and support those involved.
“I don’t get involved with any of the hearing process because I’m not involved with any of the decision making so that we can stay impartial to support both of the students and truly just collect evidence and not make judgment about the evidence,” Koenig said.
In July 2021, a federal district judge annulled a rule enacted by DeVos that required colleges to exclude all testimony made by any party or witness who did not participate during the live hearing. If a survivor could not or did not want to attend their hearing, no evidence — including text messages, emails, rape kits and police reports — would be considered. If the respondent confessed during investigation but refused to be cross-examined, that statement would also be excluded from the evidence. The college notified the campus community Dec. 10, 2021 that from then on all evidence could be considered during a live hearing whether or not a party or witness is absent.
After junior Lillian Hosken — who uses she/they pronouns — reported in November 2021 what they felt was rape, Hosken said the Title IX office told her the experience was not considered rape under Title IX. The Annual Fire and Safety Report (AFSR) defines rape as the non-consensual “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person.”
“If [Hosken’s former partner] asked to have sex and I said no, they’d either get visibly really sad, or they’d get really angry with me,” Hosken said. “It felt like our relationship was on the line. … They would pressure me into sex the same way they would pressure me into doing pretty much anything they wanted me to do.”
The college’s 2021 AFSR, states that consent cannot be given when it is the result of coercion, intimidation, force or threat of harm to self or others. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), force does not necessarily mean physical pressure and can also be emotional coercion, psychological force or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Koenig said that if an accused student was repeatedly asking for sexual favors and not taking no for an answer, it would likely be investigated as harassment.
“It felt like I had to say yes but that yes allowed that to happen and it also like nullified the ability for it to be seen as rape [to Title IX],” Hosken said. “I feel incredibly unsafe, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Despite increasing awareness of the widespread issue of sexual violence, the college has had increasing numbers of Violence Againt Women Acts (VAWA) reported to Title IX recently. According to the AFSR, the college recorded 11 reports of on-campus rape in 2017, 13 in 2018, 14 in 2019, 10 in 2020 while students were on campus between Jan. 21 and March 6, 2020 because of COVID-19. In previous reporting by The Ithacan, Koenig has attributed higher VAWA case numbers with students being more comfortable reporting.
Hope Gardner ’21 founded IC Strike in Fall 2019 to advocate against sexual violence and to create a support system for students. Gardner said it is essential to move away from advocacy that specifically focuses on cisgender, straight white women as the primary victim.
“There are so many people who are constantly left out of these discussions,” Gardner said. “Those realities are part of what leads people to not want to report to anyone because they feel like what they experienced doesn’t fit within the common definition of sexual assault.”
Male students 18–24 years old are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault, according to RAINN. Female students are at a higher risk with 26.4% of undergraduate females and 6.8% of undergraduate males experiencing sexual assault. About 54% of transgender and non-binary respondents experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.
The LGBTQ+ community is just one example of groups that are excluded from survivor advocacy initiatives. For every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not report, according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community. This is also considering more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes which is a higher percentage than among women overall. Out of all American women, 14.8% experience rape and 2.8% experience attempted rape according to RAINN.
Freshman Lily Stevens said a Title IX investigation was opened after a rumor started falsely blaming a peer for sexually assaulting Stevens and another female student. Stevens said no incident of sexual assault or other misconduct occurred and the accused was wrongly investigated without her knowledge. She said the most frustrating part of the false report was that the Title IX office never told her the report had even been made. Stevens only realized the report had been made when she ran into the accused student — who believed she had reported him — while walking on campus.
“I felt almost responsible for him losing his friends and his roommate moving out,” Stevens said. “The fact that we were never told anything about it is concerning on Title IX’s part because if it had actually happened, we wouldn’t have been contacted or anything.”
When asked by The Ithacan to comment on students’ frustration with Title IX, President La Jerne Cornish said via email that she trusts Title IX to support students.
“I first need to emphasize that the safety and well-being of our students is always our number one priority,” Cornish said in the statement. “That being said, I fully acknowledge the pain, confusion and disappointment that some students may feel as they go through the Title IX process. While that process is bound by a legal and regulatory framework, I have every confidence that our Title IX team treats every student with dignity and respect, centering the institutional values of empathy, equity and accountability in the work they do.”
Some students like Gardner have found ways outside of Title IX to find support.
“I think Title IX itself is just very limited, which isn’t really the fault of the individuals,” Gardner said. “I think the most important thing is finding ways to build community that isn’t constrained by any people in positions of power.”
Gardner said that creating community is why she started IC Strike. She said she hoped the group would act as another way for students to find resources and talk about sexual violence as a survivor or an ally.
“[Before starting IC Strike] I had been assaulted and had gone through the whole Title IX reporting and reporting to the police and was at a point of feeling very isolated and alone in the whole process,” Gardner said.
Understanding why so many students feel dissatisfied with the Title IX process is something Sarah Brown, editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, said she has thought much about while reporting on Title IX in higher education.
“It kind of feels like the system isn’t working for anyone, as it is set up now,” Brown said. “Even if the Title IX office is saying ‘we have model policies, we are taking these cases seriously, we have a great staff and great resources,’ it still doesn’t seem to create an environment where students are feeling satisfied about the process.”
One institution that has taken a different approach to resolving cases of sexual misconduct is The College of New Jersey. If both the reporter and the respondent agree, they can choose to participate in the college’s Alternative Resolution Process. As part of the process, a resolution agreement is made in order to repair harm that may have been caused or experienced. With this agreement, the college attempts to recognize that each case is unique and works to tailor the process to the needs of the reporter.
Ithaca College has an informal resolution process where students can work with Title IX to resolve the case without having a hearing.
Brown said one reason most colleges do not have an alternative option based on restorative justice is because federal regulations on Title IX are extremely prescriptive and do not offer room to explore other ways to handle sexual misconduct.
“Generally, we have seen the Title IX disciplinary process on campuses become much more legalistic like a lot of lawyers are involved and it feels like a courtroom,” Brown said. “That sort of environment is not conducive for properly handling sexual assault cases and for supporting students.”
In December 2021, President Joe Biden announced a comprehensive review of Title IX. The proposed plan is expected to be released this month for public review and is supposed to be a significant rewrite of Trump-era policies.
Brown said Biden may revert back to more Obama-era Title IX regulations, although it is currently unclear what exactly the proposed changes will be.
To receive confidential support regarding domestic or sexual violence individuals can contact the Tompkins County Advocacy Center at 607-277-5000.