In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Title IX protects individuals from sex-based discrimination, which extends to issues of sexual misconduct because “when a student has experienced a hostile environment such sexual assault or severe, pervasive and objectively offensive sexual harassment, schools must stop the discrimination, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” according to Endrapeoncampus.org.
Title IX is an integral part of our education system, especially at the college and university level where they have a legal responsibility to protect students’ rights . At Muhlenberg, these protections are addressed throughout the Student Code of Conduct, the Campus Safety Annual Security Report and the Equal Opportunity and Nondiscrimination Policy, just to name a few of the documents.
“Every school has to have a procedure for handling complaints under Title IX,”
“Every school has to have a procedure for handling complaints under Title IX,” explains Dean of Students Allison Gulati. “[They] look very similar, but there are small nuances that are different depending on your school.”
Gulati points out one particular distinction that Muhlenberg has in place, where gender expression is protected at the college level but not necessarily at the federal level. This means that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on gender-identity here on campus, but those same protections are much more ambiguous elsewhere, and are not always clearly defined.
There are also countless offices and administrators at Muhlenberg dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights that we have under Title IX. This summer, the college hired a new Director of Equity and Title IX, Lin-Chi Wang.
“Generally, I oversee and respond to reports and conduct related to discrimination and harassment based on protected categories under the College’s Student Code of Conduct, Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Policy, Statement on Discriminatory Harassment and Hate/Bias Policy at the College to ensure equal opportunity for all students and employees,” said Wang in The Muhlenberg Weekly article from Sept. 13.
Wang works alongside many other administrators, such as Gulati and Assistant Dean of Students and Student Conduct Officer Jane Schubert. Gulati and Schubert specifically work with students, faculty and staff in the cases of incidents that fall under Title IX.
“Under our current procedures, if someone comes forward with a complaint, that complaint is initially reviewed by our Director of Title IX and Equity and our Director of Campus Safety,” says Gulati, explaining that while there used to be a division in policies between students who come forward and faculty and staff that come forward, “in the new procedures, they will be very parallel to one another,” adds Gulati. In other words, students, faculty and staff are now covered under one policy.
The college utilizes very specific language pertaining to the individuals involved in an investigation, where the accuser is known as the “complainant” and the accused is known as the “respondent,” as indicated by both Gulati and Schubert.
Following the initial review by the preliminary departments, if an investigation is warranted, an investigator will then be assigned to conduct fact-finding, or confirming whether or not there has been a Title IX offense, explains Gulati.
“At that point Lin-Chi Wang would meet with both the person who is bringing forth the complaint as well as the person who has been accused and they would both be given a notice of their rights and a notice of investigation that explains what is going to happen in that process,” notes Gulati. “They would be able to name witnesses and others that should be interviewed, then that investigative process begins. We would also at that meeting with each of those people talking about interim measures.”
These interim measures are put in place in order to protect the individuals involved in an investigation. Potential interim measures may include anything from having students change classes to temporary suspensions, especially if there is a greater threat to the wider community, as outlined by the 2018 Campus Safety Annual Security report.
Once the investigation is complete, the investigator reports back to Wang and the Student Conduct Office. If a Title IX violation does occur, Schubert begins guiding students through the trial.
Schubert explains that individuals involved are provided with an advisor, either one trained through the college or an advisor of their choice. The advisor will act as a support system throughout the trial.
“If it does move forward, the hearing board will consist of a faculty chair, a college administrator, and two students,” says Schubert. She also mentions that the complainant and the respondent both have to agree to have students involved in the trial.
“If one [either the complainant or the respondent] says no, then students are not involved. Instead, there would be two administrators” adds Schubert.
Gulati also points out that “the board goes through extensive training.”
In terms of the hearing, there are specific measures in place to maintain the privacy of all parties involved.
“The respondent does not have to be in the room. There are several different procedures that they have that keeps them comfortable going throughout the process,” explains Schubert. “The respondent does not question the complainant, it’s done through the hearing board chair; there is no direct contact between the two.”
Ultimately the goal of the hearing board is for them to figure out if the respondent is responsible for what may have happened.
“If they decide they are responsible, they then recommend sanctions and all of that information comes to me for a final decision, and then once that decision is made and communicated, students have the right to appeal,” says Gulati.
The Student Code of Conduct states three grounds for appeal, including “that a material procedural error occurred that had the reasonable potential of affecting the decisions; that material new evidence exists that was not available prior to or at the time of the hearing and had the reasonable potential of affecting the decisions; and/or that the sanctions) imposed are unduly harsh.”
Ultimately, the college strives for a fair and equal trial in all cases.
“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our students. As it relates to sexual misconduct, that is an issue that we take of the utmost seriousness” explains Gulati. “We are going to be adamant about our policies and procedures and the protections that they provide. Providing fair process to everyone involved, both the accused and the respondents.”
“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our students. As it relates to sexual misconduct, that is an issue that we take of the utmost seriousness”
This dedication to a fair trial also extends beyond the respondent and complainant; it includes the witnesses too.
“If you are accused of a violation of our code, there are people who can provide fair information about your whereabouts, under the law they would be required to share that information and that’s true under our policy as well,” says Gulati, noting the necessity for witnesses in these trials. “If you are a witness to something and have information that could either support the complainant or the respondent, then you are required under our code to provide that information. We will do everything that we can to offer protection.”
Gulati also mentions the fact that the college has a strict retaliation policy in place, where “only people in that room will be privy to that information.”
“Retaliation against an individual who takes any action under this EO Policy is prohibited,” according to the newly revised Equal Opportunity and Nondiscrimination Policy. “It is central to the values of this College that any individual who believes they may have been the target of prohibited discrimination or harassment feels free to report their concerns for appropriate investigation and response, without fear of retaliation or retribution.”
“Anytime a student has concerns about the process or their participation in it, they can meet with Lin-Chi Wang to discuss and get clarification on these things (which students often do),” mentions Gulati.
“Parties have the right to identify witnesses and the investigator has discretion to determine if a witness has relevant information,” explains Wang. “Sometimes, the investigator will not know if a witness has relevant information until the investigator meets and speaks with the witness.”
Wang also adds that there can be a possibility for only one identified witness, although that is not common in her experience.
“A witness typically will not know if and what other witnesses have been identified in an investigation. The amount of information disclosed to a witness is limited to what a witness needs to know in order to provide relevant information,” says Wang.
“Regardless of the number of witnesses, if a witness requests anonymity, there will be a balancing assessment conducted. We have to ensure that the parties are afforded a fair process in which they can fully understand and respond to all of the relevant information being considered, and that typically cannot happen unless the parties know the identity of the witness(es),” Wang also adds. “Ensuring the parties’ right in that respect will be balanced against any imminent threat or danger to the well-being of the witness.”
Nonetheless, “a witness is expected to participate and cooperate with an investigation and the hearing board process; however, a witness cannot be compelled to speak,” explains Wang.