Tackling Title IX Changes: PC’s Response to New Federal Guidelines Is Promising
By Julia McCoy ’22
Trigger Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault.
Earlier this year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and an upheaval of their daily routines, college students were faced with more troublesome news. The federal guidelines surrounding Title IX had changed and would affect the way sexual assault is handled at their schools.
Federal Title IX changes were produced in response to lawsuits claiming that schools were being biased against “responding parties,” or those who were accused of an offense. While the guidelines were issued to try and eliminate those biases, students and survivor rights advocates worry that stricter guidelines would prevent justice from being served.
This news, of course, affects students across the country and here at Providence College. The new regulations, passed by the Department of Education, address issues such as cross-examination processes, types of acceptable evidence, and the locations that colleges have jurisdiction over.
However, one of the most important things to recognize in this situation is the significance of choice. If the current federal administration is choosing to roll back certain policies, a school is not liable to follow suit. According to Jeffrey Hill of the Rhode Island Department of Health, a school cannot do less than what the federal guidelines require, “but certainly they can exceed them.”
Freedom of choice, then, belongs to the College. Individual schools have the right to deal with issues in their own way, as long as they meet minimum federal guidelines. So, how did PC’s administration respond to these regulations?
The first major change was the introduction of a federally mandated cross-examination process. The proposal for cross-examination has been considered for years now, but was just passed at the federal level in the hopes that information received during these processes would be more reliable.
Ideally, a cross-examination ensures that each party has the opportunity to answer questions truthfully and that the investigative parties have access to these statements. According to Gail Dyer, J.D., a member of the General Counsel team at PC, “No information should go to the decision makers unless it is fully tested and deemed reliable.” This prevents false information and evidence from being included in the decision-making processes.
Of course, there was some hesitation with this introduction, as it could cause retraumatization for the survivor or intimidation of either party. PC is doing its best to combat this. Survivors do not have to be in the same room as the person they are reporting against. As Dyer said, “Being in the same space may hinder that search for truth.” Instances of PTSD or retraumatization could certainly affect the search for the truth, so the College is promising safe spaces as a way to avoid this issue.
The federal government also gave colleges “discretion to respond, or not to respond, to conduct that is not covered by Title IX.” This includes situations that may arise at non-school sanctioned events, such as off-campus parties.
Because off-campus parties are not covered under Title IX, students had reason to believe that instances that occur off-campus would be ignored by the school. Dr. James Campbell, the Title IX coordinator at PC, responded to these concerns, saying, “An offense might not be a Title IX offense, but we have rewritten our policies so that something offensive like that is still a violation. The College is still saying that behavior is not acceptable.”
Although a situation that occurs at an off-campus event not sanctioned by the College is not covered by Title IX, the College would not ignore the issue. Rather, these issues would be handled by a Community Standards procedure.
It is in the best interest of the College to continue to handle these off-campus offenses regardless of what federal protections state. We, as students, are contracted by the College to follow certain rules. The Student Handbook is, according to Jeffrey Hill, a “contract between you and the school. The student code of conduct applies to all students.”
As the handbook states, students have “the right to coexist peacefully with other members of the Providence College community, which includes the right to protection against force, violence, threat, harassment, and abuse.” Because these are the rights afforded to us by PC, the College has an obligation to protect us, wherever we may be, from having said rights violated. The administration recognizes this, which is why there are procedures in place that exceed the guidelines of the federal government.
The new federal guideline also gives schools the option to choose between two different types of evidence to accept. The first is a higher standard, known as clear and convincing. The second option is a lower standard: preponderance of evidence—this has been the practice of the College. The administration has chosen to keep preponderance of evidence as its standard, which it believes “reflects best practice,” according to Dyer.
Essentially, there was an option to make the requirements of evidence much tighter. However, the College decided that this was not necessary in their procedures.
If students were worried about a lack of mandated reporting on campus, it seems their worries can be quelled at PC. The College maintains that any faculty—except those confidential resources such as the Health Center, the Personal Counseling Center, and the chaplains—is a mandated reporter.
Additionally, the College introduced a new group of “Officials with Authority” (OWA). These staff members are required to report any information related to a possible incident of misconduct to the office of Dr. Campbell. If anything, these introductions make faculty more accountable for reporting issues they are aware of on campus.
Students’ anxiety surrounding changes to Title IX was certainly justified, as the federal guidelines could have created a more dangerous environment on college campuses for survivors. However, the College has used its discretion to ensure that students are supported, whether on or off campus.