Every parent sending a child off to college wants to know that they’re going to be safe as they pursue their education. Unfortunately, sexual assault continues to plague most campuses.
Some victims file complaints with their schools’ Title IX offices -- either instead of or in addition to pursuing criminal charges -- but what happens then? If you haven’t been personally involved in a Title IX investigation and hearing, it’s hard to imagine how it might unfold. We’re familiar with scenes from criminal trials, but this process isn’t like that, even though the university may be making decisions about crimes as serious as rape.
The Title IX process has been the center of political and media attention in Missouri lately, as legislators and lobbyists pushed bills designed to better protect students accused of sexual assault. The Kansas City Star reported last month that Richard McIntosh, a Jefferson City lobbyist, launched a campaign to change Title IX law for every campus in the state after his son was accused and subsequently expelled from Washington University last year through the school’s Title IX process.
The proposed law’s platoon of lobbyists and supportive lawmakers have made this an issue of protecting due process rights for the accused.
So is the process, as it stands now, unfair? I reached out to Lori White, vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University, where I have taught college writing as an adjunct, to explain the process.
Here’s what White says happens when a student makes a complaint.
-- The student is advised of their options: They can simply get the emotional and psychological support they need from the university’s resources, or they can choose to go through the criminal process, the student conduct process, or both. The support is available regardless of any other action taken.
-- The student decides which path to pursue.
-- If the student files a complaint with the Title IX office, an administrator meets with the student, takes the complaint and determines if it meets the requirement for a Title IX investigation, which looks into sexual assault, misconduct and harassment. If it does, the person accused is notified that a complaint has been filed.
-- An investigator employed by the university interviews both parties separately and any witnesses that either party provides. There is no limit on the number of witnesses.
-- The student who files the complaint can request another investigator from the university’s investigative team if they have any reservations about the hired investigator.
-- The investigator writes a detailed report about the information collected, which is seen by both parties in the case. Either party may provide any additional information after reading the report. The report is delivered to a three-person panel, which typically includes a faculty member, staff person and student. The panel calls each party separately to tell their side of the story and answer questions. The panel may also call and question witnesses from the report.
-- Both the complainant and accused are allowed to have one support person during the hearing, which can be a friend, parent, attorney, or whomever the student chooses. However, only the complainant and accused can speak during the hearing.
-- The panel issues a finding of either “responsible” or “not responsible.” The panel uses the standard of “a preponderance of the evidence,” similar to what is used in civil cases and other cases involving violations of student codes of conduct. It’s a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” used in criminal trials.
-- If the accused person is found “responsible,” there is a range of consequences including probation, educational sanctions, suspension or expulsion. A report is given to both parties explaining the decision.
-- Either party can appeal the decision to the university provost, whose decision is final.
White shared data on cases that have gone through the Title IX process at Washington University from 2013 to 2018. In that time, there were 45 cases investigated by a contractor hired by the university. The accused was found responsible in 25 cases; seven of those 25 were expelled, eight suspended, and 10 got probation or an educational sanction or no-contact order with the student who made the complaint.
Washington University’s crime statistics, obtained through the Clery Report, indicate there were 122 reports of rape on campus from 2013 to 2017. The fact that only 45 Title IX investigations were pursued over a nearly concurrent time period could be due to complainant students’ decisions not to pursue the cases, White said.
“The process is designed to be fair and equitable to all parties,” White said.
The university joined other colleges in the state to speak against the proposed legislative changes to the process, which they say would discourage victims from reporting sexual assaults and misconduct.