Title IX compliance efforts not enough

Morgan White
Opinion Editor

Illustration by Shannon Wright

I’m terrified for future victims of sexual assault on this campus. I’m infuriated for past victims thrown into the pile of problems dealt with as a 9-to-5 obligation, something the worker bees had to deal with to make the overheads happy.

  In part of VCU’s “aggressive” combat against sexual assault, president Michael Rao notified students on Sept. 12 that they were required to take an online training course pertaining to Title IX, the 1972 federal law which forbids sexual discrimination on college campuses.

The training course primarily focuses on employee retaliation, what Title IX entails and a module entitled ‘expectations,’ which is apparently meant to reach the people who have thought about committing these wrongdoings in a last ditch effort to prevent their actions by laying down a ‘we’ll be disappointed in you if you do this’ slap on the wrist.

Perhaps the patronizing tone that best summarizes the course’s premise is a quote at the top of the last page which reads, “Remember: There is no right way to do the wrong thing.”

This measure seems like another bureaucratic attempt at satisfying red-tape requirements and doing something, rather than accomplishing anything. I learned nothing from taking the “training course,” aside from what my moral compass previously dictated and what I ruthlessly overviewed myself for this column. Even the 25-question comprehension quiz at the course’s conclusion seems disingenuous; clicking the ‘check answers’ button will reveal the correct answers before the quiz is even taken.

In light of recent events at the institutional, state and national level, this is nowhere near enough.

Currently there are four Virginia universities listed on the Department of Education’s May 1 publication of institutions of higher education under federal investigation for Title IX violations pertaining to sexual assault. We should be the fifth. The university scraped past making this list of schools — by only a week’s margin.

Rao signed an Office of Civil Rights resolution agreement on April 23, concluding the federal investigation of VCU last year, following two complaints to the OCR in the fall semester pertaining to the university’s compliance practices. One of these complaints was a detailed claim that VCU administration mishandled a sexual assault allegation.

The university withstood federal review and shortly thereafter, a slew of emails to the VCU community pertaining to revamped compliance efforts were shelled out by administration, each of them conveniently forgetting to mention the investigation that surely contributed in part to the new measures.

In a February email — during the height of the investigative process — Rao explicitly cited ‘cautionary tales’ from campuses ‘around the country’ as reason to ‘remain vigilant,’ a PR dance around the cautionary tale transpiring on our campus, thinly guised under the mask of ‘university transparency.’

The resolution agreement Rao signed in April stated that it did not ‘constitute an admission by the University of any violation of Title IX or any other law enforced by OCR. However, changes to VCU’s compliance practices were mandated throughout the document.

An administration doesn’t sign a hefty agreement unless they know they’ve made a grand mistake. One mistake was the mishandled sexual assault allegation — a disgusting, recent and unfortunately recurring theme on campuses nationwide. The second complaint to the OCR was by graduate business student Antoinette Moore who claimed VCU mishandled the gender discrimination she faced in a marketing class. Following the conclusion of the federal investigation, Moore filed a subsequent complaint to the OCR in May citing retaliation from the university.

The former allegation to the OCR specifically pertained to the investigation of a faculty member who, among other allegations, had previously raped the complainant. The complainant stated in a four-hour interview with the CT  that the rape itself was less painful than the university’s proceedings and apparent indifference in response to her finally speaking out. She also said in an email to an OCR attorney advisor that the commonwealth’s attorney had at one point compared VCU’s response ‘to the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky cover-up.’

In light of these realizations now coming to the public sphere, VCU’s attempts at amending their woes seem lackluster and insincere. We pay nearly $1000 for each class and we can’t even trust the institution we pay to treat a sexual assault survivor with decency? Looking at these cases, I can’t help but wonder what else lies behind the weak ethical backbone of this institution. What other skeletons are in the closet?

I’m astounded that the university that’s become such an integral part of Richmond isn’t able to  contend in the realm of respect and care of their employees or students that have endured such pain. Instead they make them run a marathon to see justice, most likely so that they don’t have to stay late at work. They’ve got plans for a movie at 8 with their significant other, if they go any later it’ll cut into the show that’s on TV at 10 and they got rid of their DVR months ago.

I, like the employee, want to believe that this administration is stronger than that, that they do care for their own. Our administrative culture cannot be defined by this. It cannot be defined by a mere shrug in response to sexual assault — sending canned emails and ‘mandating’ online courses that likely would have had no effect on the three soccer players who took videos of a nude minor on campus, ultimately resulting in a 10-day jail sentence this year.

Most of the undergraduate population won’t take this course. If they do they’ll probably click through the modules haphazardly and have the computer fill in their answers on the comprehension quiz. This isn’t littering. You can’t just assign fixing the scene to people filling out their community service requirements. This is a permanent wound on somebody’s life and what you do to keep sexual assault from happening on the student level is assign a quiz?

While I credit the institution for making changes to the Title IX leadership who handled the two cases that transitioned into complaints to the OCR, I can’t help but feel that such issues have been handled as a thorn in the side of VCU’s PR team, and not as defining experiences in a person’s life. PTSD is not just a soldier’s disease — it is the reality of many of the one in six women who are rape survivors.

Dr. Rao, training courses mean nothing to faculty and students. It’s the follow-through that means everything.

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