Lately there has been considerable commentary regarding a Title IX case that was heard in the Spring of 2015. The discussion has proceeded mostly on social media, but I have received a number of emails on the matter and some faculty members report that the issue has come up in classes. Additionally, remarks about the issue were issued publicly during the discussion session following last week’s convocation.
Given these conversations and the accompanying expressions of concern regarding the safety of students, it seems appropriate to provide some additional perspective to the community. In so doing, I need to respect the privacy rules that are part of our Title IX policies and other regulations.
Even though I can have little to say about the particular case that has raised questions, I am hopeful that what I am able to say will be reassuring to those who are concerned. Student safety is of paramount importance and it is also very important that everyone have confidence that the College is committed to doing its utmost to protect the safety and wellbeing of all students.
Going forward, that protection starts with having robust policies regarding sexual misconduct. Our policies have been recently updated through the work of a campus committee, composed of faculty, staff, administrative and student members, which carefully studied recent federal guidance in this area. The new policies were officially adopted at the beginning of the 2015-16 year, and can be found in the faculty manual as well as the student handbook.
(It should be noted that the case that has attracted recent attention occurred before the new policies were adopted, and so it was handled according to the prior policies then in place.)
Because our new policies were created through a robust process, and approved by both the General Faculty Assembly and the Board of Trustees, I am confident that they are very suitable for the purpose of handling complaints regarding sexual misconduct fairly and with sensitivity to the gravity of these situations. Still, no policy is ever perfect and we are always open to suggestions for how it can be improved. In fact, it has been suggested that the policies would be improved by the addition of a new role in proceedings, that of a victim advocate. I will be appointing a committee that will include faculty, students and staff to evaluate this possible addition to our policies. Any other suggestions are welcome as well.
Questions regarding the College’s sexual misconduct policies are always welcome and can be addressed to me or Katie Basham, Title IX coordinator. We are available to meet with anyone with concerns or questions, and indeed we have already had a number of such meetings.
Some questions center around the processes involved in sexual misconduct cases. These are outlined in the College’s current procedures and may be summarized as follows. Reports of sexual misconduct are directed to the Title IX coordinator for investigation and follow-up. Victim support, protective measures, counseling and other services are made available. In addition, cases involving student on student claims are processed and any sanctions determined according to the Student Judicial Code. When formal hearings are required, cases are presented to hearing panels appointed from the Campus Conduct Hearing Board (CCHB). Both parties have a right to present evidence and be heard by the panel. Once the hearing is completed, participants are informed of the panel’s decision and any sanctions. Either party may appeal the panel’s decision. When I receive an appeal, it is my obligation to review the matter to ensure that our policies were adhered to, and if there were any significant departures or deviations, to deal appropriately with the situation. Following that presidential response, our campus process is concluded, but of course, any participant has the option of pursuing legal action through the courts or filing a complaint with the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, and possibly other agencies.
In the matter at hand, following an investigation, the case was heard by a CCHB panel composed of staff and student members. The parties were informed of the decision of the panel and neither elected to appeal. For that reason I was unaware of the case until concerns began to arise more recently. Upon learning of these concerns, I asked Katie Basham to review the case and report fully to me. On the basis of that review, I am satisfied that the policies then in place were followed, and that the respondent has complied with the rulings that emerged from the hearing.
Because of the confidentiality surrounding Title IX hearings, it is not typical that a case results in later public attention. That has occurred, however, in the matter at hand, and so perhaps a word is in order here about rights and ability to speak concerning a case. First, any College officials involved in such a case, myself included, are bound under the terms of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to respect the confidentiality of the process and privacy of the participants. We are not allowed to release any information. That limitation does not apply, however, to the complainant or the respondent. Others in the community also may express their views about a particular case. Freedom of expression in this area is limited only by larger outside legal strictures like the laws against libel, hate speech, and the like. Therefore, the College has not attempted to limit anyone’s freedom of expression, and will not do so, unless there arises potential for harm to individuals.
Now, more than a year after the hearing and final decision, increasingly strong concerns are being conveyed to me by individuals in our community who support either the complainant or the respondent in this matter. Because these individuals are informed principally by one or the other of the two perspectives in the case, and because I am not at liberty to provide any further information regarding the case, it has generally not been possible to respond in a way that gives satisfaction. I can offer only the assurances that policies were followed and that, to the best of my ability to determine it, there is no immediate threat to the safety of individuals in our community arising out of this case.
The subject of how the Berea College community can best limit the occurrence of sexual misconduct is a very important one. I do not want to limit dialog on that in any way, because it is only through open discourse and real commitment, that we will be able to develop a culture in which misconduct is increasingly rare, and in which all share the confident expectation that when misconduct does regrettably occur, the institutional response will be appropriate, sensitive, comprehensive and fair.
It is evident that our community would benefit from opportunities for further discussion of sexual misconduct and how to develop the sort of positive culture that will benefit all. I am therefore asking Katie Basham and Osvaldo Flores, president of the Student Government Association, to work together to arrange community forums for this discussion to proceed. I look forward to participating in those events, and earnestly hope that others with concerns and constructive ideas will also attend and contribute.