A VCU expert tells you everything you need to know about Title IX changes

Christina Mancini. Photo by Hiba Ahmad.

The Commonwealth Times sat down with Christina Mancini, associate professor of criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, to discuss the role and future of Title IX on college campuses.

What’s your background and research you’ve done?

I have done my doctoral work in sex offending and sexual victimization. My current work looks at campus crime and criminal justice policy including public opinion. I’ve done some polling research to uncover public perceptions of crime and justice and the measures we should take. I also study the sexual abuse of children and just general sex offenders laws.

What is the Title IX legislation and what led to its inception?

Title IX is a very broad law. It was enacted in 1972 and it was enacted in response to concerns of gender inequality in education, which is very broad because it covers sports, extra curricular activities, etc. But the law also refers to K-12 schools to make ensure that have fair and equal environments and avoid any hostile educational environments for any gender.

The events that kick started the legislation were events that were happening in larger society: concerns of civil rights, the women’s movement, more women entering the workforce and higher number of women entering higher education. Many of these factors likely influenced the creation of Title IX.

The reason Title IX is applied to this debate around campus sex assault is because a part of the law says colleges create environments that are fair for any gender. If women or men are being sexually harassed or victimized within the university setting, either by faculty members, other students or even generally on the university campus then there needs to be some protection for these folks. That’s why Title IX applies in that context.

What did Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, originally propose to change?

In a Congressional hearing, DeVos mentioned that she cared about the safety of individuals on college campuses, so that presumably can mean that she is concerned about victimization. She also expressed that some of the measures passed under the former administration, most notably the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011. According to legal commentators, the letter provided more guidelines and responsibilities for universities to stamp out sexual victimization and to incorporate a lot of measures that are more pro-victim, which is known as the complainant or those who bring forth instances of sexual assault.

There were some commentators who felt that it was an overstep on the Obama Administration’s part. The “Dear Colleague” letter is not an official law or an amendment to the original 1972 Title IX act, but rather guidance.

The letter was incorporated without any public comment or an act of Congress and this is where the controversy stems from. She’s concerned about trying the individuals in kangaroo courts, and with the ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard — the standard of evidence that is provided to a disciplinary board, which is just a hair above believing that the alleged respondent bears some responsibility for assaulting the complainant.

It is a much lower bar than what we use in the criminal justice system, which is proof beyond reasonable doubt. DeVos has expressed concern about that standard, which is really the law of the land even though the “Dear Colleague” letter wasn’t necessarily a law.

All universities have instituted that standard provided by the letter. Prior to 2011, universities had discretion and some, according to federal reports, used ‘clear and convincing’ standard and some used the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard for evidence which would make it difficult for any review board to find anyone responsible. It’s an incredibly high bar.

Theoretically, a student could still pursue a criminal investigation on the legal side within the criminal courts.

You said Title IX is a broad legislation. How does Title IX specifically address sexual violence?

The way it’s been interpreted is that students are entitled to a safe and non-hostile environment. If students are being sexually harassed or are at high risk of being sexually victimized merely because they’re attending college– this would suggest that a campus is a hostile educational environment.

This is a gender neutral type of legislation, but it is predominantly concentrated on female students because they tend to be victims of sexual victimization in the general population, but even more so in the college population. That’s why there has been a call for colleges to provide a fair and safe environment for students.

We all are all familiar with the required Title IX training that everyone on campus is required to complete. I will say, having looked at our Title IX services and based on what I’ve seen at other universities, I think we really are a model for people nationally.

We have an excellent set of resources — this is true for the complainants and the respondents. Remember, universities have to be fair watch dogs here. The university cannot take sides. We have services for survivors and services for respondents — individuals who face these disciplinary review boards.

In a recent project you partnered with The Wilder School to look into mandatory reporting laws. In a poll, 92% of respondents said sexual assaults should be reported to police — not handled by university officials. Can you speak to the thought process behind that response?

I think what that 92 percent was getting at was supporting a mandatory reporting law and that’s exactly what we’ve incorporated in the Commonwealth. Every employee at a publicly funded university and college in Virginia must report any allegation of a sexual assault.

For example, if a student discloses to me that they have been assaulted I would have to forward that information to our Title IX coordinators. The coordinators would then contact the individual and conduct an investigation based on a committee decision. They would also decide if the allegation appears to warrant additional law enforcement presence.

Remember, sometimes victims don’t want to report to law enforcement. We encourage involving police because it helps with the overall investigation. It may help reduce predatory crime and helps keep the university safe. It can also certainly give resources to the survivor.

I think what that 92 percent is really capturing is concern among the public.

We also found that 66 percent of the public also supports greater accountability at the university level in preventing campus sex crime. Perhaps we need to refine our measures, but what the results from those two questions collectively tell me is that the public is concerned about this issue and feels that the university plays some role. At the same time, the public acknowledges that these are still crimes and where they can be reported and investigated from a criminal standpoint, they should be.

Again, there are many societal barriers as to why survivors don’t report and there is a concern of false reporting, but what the data are telling us is as much more likely an individual does not report when a sex crime occurs than for a crime to be falsified.

What the data are telling us is that underreporting is more of the norm and perhaps of more concern.

Any kind of false allegation is something there should be systems to prevent incidents of that as well. Hopefully a fair proceeding would be able to identify those.

Could you talk about some of the drawbacks of reporting directly to the police and not to the university?

If the university isn’t aware of the situation, then the they cannot offer services to the survivors. They can’t necessarily make accommodations for them in classrooms. The “Dear Colleague” letter specifies that schools do all that they can to prevent unsafe and hostile environments.

For example, if a student was assaulted by another student and both individuals are in the same course and that semester, the university can take measures to protect the individuals. They can work with the professor to provide online assignments if the student requests. There might be other accommodations to it as well: mental health counseling, medical services and more.

There are two sides of the argument when it comes to Title IX. According to DeVos’s criticism, it seems to apprehend innocent people rather than people who are actually responsible for assault. Is there a way to reach a middle ground?

Fair procedures are the way to go. Maybe the ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard is too low, but I think that’s something that could be looked at more systematically than jumping to a very high standard of providing evidence.

I still think that due process is important and universities should be objective — all respondents have the right to fair treatment.

There are rights allotted to both sides. For example, both sides can have an advisor of their choice accompany them to the disciplinary review board hearings. If the university has an appeals process, both are allowed to appeal. Both parties are given the same information at the same time. Both have the right to see the evidence on either side.

So there are procedures that are in place under the due process model, but the concerns that DeVos expressed leverage the question: do the methods favor one side? Maybe universities should have a say in these policies since they are the ones being asked to follow all of these guidelines. If we don’t give universities the requisite training and education we’re setting them up for failure.


Hiba Ahmad News Editor

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