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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 19, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Title IX Office addresses student concerns about new regulations

Ithaca College has addressed the concerns of the student-led petition advocating for the college to make changes to Title IX policies at the institutional level.

Title IX Coordinator Linda Koenig addressed the requests of maintaining a 60-day investigation timeline and matching the college’s degrees of sexual abuse to that of New York state’s at the Title IX Virtual Town Hall. The panel, hosted by IC Strike a student organization focused on sexual assault awareness and prevention and the college’s Title IX office, was held Sept. 24 to be a conversation about the new national Title IX regulations and the impact on the college’s Title IX rules. 

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The law also includes regulations educational institutions must follow when they handle sexual misconduct. Koenig said that if a report does not meet Title IX standards, the college will use its own policies outlined in its policy manual.

The U.S Department of Education recently made changes to Title IX, including a narrower definition of sexual harassment. Prior to the change, sexual harassment was defined as any “unwelcome conduct of sexual nature” that includes requests for sexual favors and other verbal, nonverbal and physical conduct by an employee or third party. The latest definition reverts to the Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education court phrasing of 2001 that defines sexual harassment as unwelcome conduct that a person deems “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person equal educational access.”

In response to the national changes, members of IC Strike sent a letter to the college administration that outlined eight demands regarding Title IX policies. Senior Jennifer Larios, who helped to write the letter, started a petition to the college calling for the administration to protect its students from the new regulations. Prior to the town hall, the college only met six of those demands, leaving unaddressed the 60-day time limit and the degrees of sexual abuse.

Senior Hope Gardner, president and co-founder of IC Strike, moderated the town hall and asked Koenig if Title IX will commit to the 60-day limit whenever possible. Koenig said the goal is to do so whenever possible, but sometimes a case may take longer or less than 60 days in order to complete the investigation.

“Our investigations are thorough, and they need to be fair and impartial, and, in order to do that, we need to treat each case as an individual case and apply what the needs are for the parties involved,” Koenig said. 

Addressing the second concern, Koenig said that the college’s definitions of sexual abuse have remained the same and are compliant with federal and state law.

Koenig said that reports of sexual misconduct will continue to be investigated amid the pandemic and that the reporting process has not changed with remote instruction. She said that employees in the office can still talk to students reporting incidents via phone or video call.

Koenig said she will reach out to each individual who files a report to see what action that individual would like to take. In a remote setting, students can still make a formal complaint that could result in a process with the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards and an investigation. Students can also go through an informal resolution process that is not a fact-finding mission. Rather, these are mediations with Koenig — most likely with each party involved separately — where the parties come to an agreement, like no longer contacting each other or figuring out course schedules in which they are not in the same classes. However, both parties need to agree to participate in this option, Koenig said. It also does not stop one party from requesting a formal complaint if they choose.

She added that the options students have are not limited to the ones discussed because each case is different. 

Omar Stoute, deputy Title IX coordinator, said that investigations will be held over video calls during remote learning, and students can still have an adviser with them during that time. An adviser can be a friend, family member, attorney or another individual of the student’s choosing. Additionally, there are professional faculty and staff members from the college who have received specific training. Stoute said this training will still continue to be offered, as well as prevention programs for the community.

Stoute said all incoming students completed an online training and prevention module and will receive a webinar about topics including confirmative consent and how students can make a report and see when resources are available. 

Formal hearings with the student conduct board will be recorded. Crossexamination questions will not be reviewed by the student conduct board before or during the investigation, but every question asked will be reviewed by the board chairperson to make sure that it is relevant and the student can answer it, said Katie Newcomb, assistant director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards. She also said that the punishments a student could receive if found responsible for sexual misconduct are still the same as it would be on campus. Serious outcomes can result in suspension or expulsion from the college, a punishment that can result in students being unable to participate in classes and activities, including remote classes and activities. 

Newcomb said that the college’s definitions of sexual harassment and misconduct do not depend on if the misconduct occurred in a virtual or physical setting and that it will still hold students accountable. 

Hamburger and Koenig both said that off-campus students can still use the resources provided both through the Title IX office and the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County during this time. Lara Hamburger, campus educator for the Advocacy Center, said the center can provide information about the reporting process. She said the center can also help students who are considering accessing other systems, similar to that of the Advocacy Center and Title IX office, outside the college’s area. Hamburger said advocates — people who provide safety and support to those who need it — cannot accompany students to the hospitals physically because of COVID-19 restrictions, but they will provide digital support mechanisms there and other virtual support for their other resources. 

“Our services are really not one size fits all,” Hamburger said. “They’re very much catered to the individual’s asks and needs and situation.” 

Larios said she thinks the discussion went well. She also said she believes the college responded in a way that upholds the community’s civil rights, but its response was not perfect.

“There are still gray areas, especially when it comes to the investigation timeline,” Larios said via email.

The Student Governance Council passed a bill Sept. 14 recommending that the college’s Title IX office releases a statement that is accessible online and begins proposals regarding U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ changes to Title IX, as well as outlining a 60day calendar time limit for resolution of Title IX cases. 

Students who experience any type of sexual misconduct or harassment or behavior that violates school policy are encouraged to report it to the college. 

“This was really about making our community’s voice heard and making sure we’re all united in our understanding of what’s going on right now and knowing how to take care of survivors on and off campus,” Gardner said. “We’re all trying to make sure that the students are going to continue to be centered and prioritized no matter what regulations come down from the Department of Education.”