Title IX reports fluctuate in response to federal policy

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Chief Compliance Officer and Title IX Coordinator Pamela Mason presented the annual data on Title IX reports and investigations for the 2018 fiscal year to the Board of Visitors.

During the College of William and Mary’s Board of Visitors meeting on Audit, Risk and Compliance Sept. 27th, Chief Compliance Officer and Title IX Coordinator Pamela Mason presented the annual data on Title IX reports and investigations for the 2018 fiscal year.

The number of Title IX reports increased between 2015 and 2017, then decreased slightly from 2017 to 2018. In 2016, there were 99 total Title IX reports, 32 of which were investigated; in 2017, there were 167 total reports with 32 investigated; and in 2018, there were 142 total reports, with 29 investigated. Among the subcategories of reports, there is a notable increase in relationship violence between 2016 and 2017, from two reports in 2015 and 4 reports in 2016, to 19 in 2017.

At the Board meeting, Mason’s presentation focused on the data from the reports and what the College could do to lower the number of reports it receives. New to this year’s presentation was the inclusion of trends over several years for reports and investigations going back to 2015.

The College has collected and kept data on Title IX reports for many years, under compliance with the Clery Act of 1990. The act requires that any college which participates in federal financial aid programs keep and make public certain statistics about crime on campus. This includes sex offenses, which constitute Title IX violations on the basis of discrimination. The Violence Against Women Act also dictates what universities must keep track of, as it specifies how such crimes can be prosecuted.

The 2017-18 academic year was only the third since the most recent amendments of VAWA and the Clery Act. The amendments caused many universities, including the College, to update their reporting standards and definitions of Title IX violations. As a result, there are more data categories on which reports can be compared.

“We might be looking at … reporting in general, and what are trends in reporting. So, trying to get more philosophical with [the Board of Visitors], than just numbers and data oriented and have them be thinking about what’s the best response,” Mason said.

“We’re actually just getting to a place where we have comparative data,” Mason said in an interview a few days after the Board meeting. “We might be looking at … reporting in general, and what are trends in reporting. So, trying to get more philosophical with [the Board of Visitors], than just numbers and data oriented and have them be thinking about what’s the best response.”

Several factors contributed to the variance in the number of reports over the years. From federal policy changes to the updates in the College’s definitions for acts violating Title IX, to more awareness of sexual assault on campus in general, the reasons are more complex than just an increase in instances of misconduct.

For example, prior to the College’s policy update, sexual misconduct constituting a violation of the school’s policy was defined as “sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual contact, non-consensual sexual intercourse, and sexual exploitation.” The handbook provided examples and limited definitions of the listed items, but there was no mention of dating violence, domestic violence or stalking.

Furthermore, the College’s definition of sexual assault was split into the definitions of non-consensual sexual contact and non-consensual sexual intercourse, but sexual assault as a broader term was not yet used. This meant that reports could depend on things like each individual’s definition of terms like sexual intercourse, complicating incident categorization for the Clery report.

“The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of [2013] said [that by 2014], we had to start counting for our Clery/[Annual Security Report], the sexual assaults, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking,” Mason said. “Not that they weren’t violations, but those became much more defined by that VAWA act in [2014]. So [the increase in reports] was really driven by federal law that said we had to have that in the policy.”

This update in the policies of the federal government and the College coincided with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ audit of the College’s Title IX policies in 2014. This audit also increased the Compliance and Equity Office involvement on campus.

While the previously unmentioned violations were always against student conduct policy, the fact that they were not defined under sexual misconduct meant that the Student Conduct Council, and other departments, dealt with some reports rather than them all going to the Compliance and Equity Office. This change further contributed to the rise in numbers for Title IX reports.

The College’s increased clarity of reports, greater distinction for which faculty departments are mandated to report Title IX incidents and streamlining of what happens to reports once they are made, likely all contributed to the increased numbers. This theory is reinforced by the plateau between the numbers from 2017 and those from 2018. Now that the system is more stable, the numbers have also stabilized.

“We give a presentation to all the freshmen about healthy relationships and sexual violence prevention,” Weber said.

More than anything else, Mason attributes the rise in reports to a correlated rise in awareness on campus of issues of sexual misconduct. Mason said she suspects that this was also the main reason for the slight increase in relationship violence reports over the past two years. She also stressed that if the increase was not primarily due to awareness, the Compliance and Equity Office would have found ways to address the problem earlier on.

“The bigger jump comes from awareness programs, more so than policy, I think,” Mason said. “[For example] the red flag campaign and people coming from backgrounds that realize [the warning signs for domestic violence.]”

Vice President of Healthy Sexual Relationships and Sexual Violence Prevention for HOPE Leslie Weber ’20 confirmed that her division of HOPE had several events dedicated to raising awareness of situations that could lead to Title IX reports.

“So we’re actually in the midst of doing our EFYIs right now,” Weber said. “… We give a presentation to all the freshmen about healthy relationships and sexual violence prevention. We also do the Red Flag campaign every October, which is about identifying the red flags in relationships.”

Among these programs is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, during which HOPE hosts Take Back the Night, the organization’s most highly attended event according to Weber.

Even with all the factors that increased the number of reports, a large percentage of reports still go uninvestigated. Details, like names of victims and perpetrators or the location of an incident, are sometimes not included in reports. While this is usually to preserve anonymity on the part of an accuser, it also often makes it difficult for the Compliance and Equity Office to formally perform an investigation, let alone count it under the Clery Act as a prosecutable on-campus crime.

“So, we had a total of 140 [Title IX reports in 2016-17], 47 sexual assaults reported,” Mason said. “My guess is, if you look in our Clery report, we had about eight. So why the discrepancy? Eight were on campus. So, we got reports of other assaults that happened at an off-campus property, or didn’t disclose where the location was, and the Clery says even if we can kind of assume … we still don’t know for sure.”

Taking all factors into account, 16 percent of Title IX reports were investigated by the Compliance and Equity Office in the 2018 financial year.

“The Haven and Title IX work closely together to respect the desired wishes of a survivor even if a mandated report was made,” Cascone said in an email.

The number of investigated reports was mitigated by reports that were passed to different departments, such as Human Resources or the Dean of Students. Other factors, like a third party making the report without knowing all the details, or the survivor specifying that they don’t want to take any investigative action, lower the number that can be investigated. Haven director Liz Cascone emphasized the importance of respecting survivors’ wishes as far as investigations go.

“If staff and faculty are aware of sexual misconduct being perpetrated in our community they can be instrumental in preventing further acts of misconduct if reported to trained professionals who can respond,” Cascone said in an email. “The Haven and Title IX work closely together to respect the desired wishes of a survivor even if a mandated report was made. A mandated report does not mean an automatic investigation.”

She made clear that the ultimate goal for all Title IX-related resources on campus, from The Haven to the way reports and investigations are handled, is to help create a safe campus environment

“[The goal is] to provide supports and resources to survivors and to hold students accountable to the policies and values of the institution,” Cascone said.