FAIRMONT — With a national push for better Title IX compliance and more and more schools facing consequences for mishandling sexual-harassment cases on campus, officials from West Virginia’s colleges came together for the first time last week to learn how to protect students from harm — and themselves from lawsuits.
Amy Niedzalkoski, an attorney who works for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and specializes in Title IX — a law that forbids gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding — spoke to dozens of state college representatives in Fairmont last week in light of recent high-profile cases at schools across the country that have been scrutinized for turning a blind eye to a “rape culture” on campus.
The Office for Civil Rights is in charge of investigating any potential mishandling of a school’s own investigation and has the right to terminate federal funding at that school if there’s evidence of a Title IX violation.
As part of the White House’s “Not Alone” campaign, ongoing federal investigations of possible Title IX violations are public for the first time, as of last week. Two of West Virginia’s colleges, Bethany and the School of Osteopathic Medicine, are on the list.
Niedzalkoski’s main advice for administrators on how to handle sexual-assault allegations was “document, document, document.”
“A lot of times, a case is going to depend on documentation. We want to see you’re trying to do everything you could do and you’re trying to work around whatever obstacle you have,” Niedzalkoski said. “We say that a school is on the hook once they know or should have known about the harassing conduct. It’s not enough to turn a blind eye. If something turns up in your school newspaper about a gang rape at a party, you’re on notice, even if the alleged victims don’t come forward.”
Between 20 percent and 25 percent of women are victims of rape or attempted rape during their time in college, according to the Campus Sexual Assault Study Final Report. About 6 percent of men experience an attempted or completed sexual assault while in college.
While Niedzalkoski urged the importance of the law and the consequences of “deliberate indifference” from a school’s staff, she acknowledged the difficulties of complying, calling many aspects of the law “tricky.”
Sometimes, a victim of sexual assault doesn’t want the school’s help. While it’s the school’s job to spread the word about students being “mandatory reporters” of an assault, it’s hard to get them to tell a friend’s secret. There’s also fear from administrators of possible Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violations.
“Confidentiality is probably, single-handedly, the most complicated issue I’ve seen colleges wrestle with,” Niedzalkoski said.
And what about when a sexual assault happens off campus?
“Sometimes, there’s confusion and frustration about the off-campus piece. We get that the problem is an assault that happened off campus, but all the repercussions are coming onto your campus, like the further harassment of a victim who can’t focus on her studies or is afraid on campus,” Niedzalkoski said. “It’s now become your problem. It doesn’t matter that it happened off campus.”
Schools should make their policies on sexual harassment as detailed as possible and easy to find on their school website, Niedzalkoski said.
It’s also important to spread the word about not only the consequences of sexually assaulting someone on campus, but about the protection a school can provide a victim — like offering amnesty for underage drinking if it relates to a case.
At least 50 percent of sexual assaults of college students involve the use of alcohol or drugs by the perpetrator, the victim or both, according to a study on sexual assault conducted in 2007.
“We’re not saying that drinking on campus is not an important problem. However, being drunk doesn’t give someone permission to assault you, and we want to see it made very clear, in policies, that a student who reports that she was sexually assaulted while she was intoxicated is not going to be penalized because she was intoxicated,” she said. “You want to encourage people to come forward. You don’t want to have this chilling effect where a very serious civil rights violation is happening because they’re afraid of an underage-drinking citation.”
The constant flow of hands raised at the Title IX conference, hosted by the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, was telling, said Lisa Martin, director of student conduct at Marshall University.
“Everybody is on pins and needles. I think everybody’s interpretation of what’s out there is different. You could ask 20 different people and they’d have 20 different answers,” Martin said. “That’s why people are panicking. They don’t know what to do.”
Martin said that while the national push to highlight sexual assault on campus is encouraging, you can’t accomplish much without funding.
“It’s stressful because, when they realized drinking was a problem, they poured money into the drinking campaign,” she said. “But they haven’t poured any money into this. So if you’re doing an investigation and you have another job on campus, the investigation takes up a lot of your time. You need more people and resources so you can get everything done.”
Leah Tolliver, coordinator of Marshall University’s Women’s Center, has worked as an advocate for sexual-assault victims for more than a decade, and said the most important thing a school can do is create a strong policy about the issue and promote it as much as possible.
“Somebody is victimized and they don’t receive the help they need, so they don’t come back the next semester. But who stays? The offender. It behooves universities to really be able to be proactive and educate our students — encouraging them to speak out when they see the red flags that lead to these types of things,” she said. “We have a responsibility to make sure our students speak out against it and also provide training for administration — but it’s not always easy.”
Tolliver said another important aspect is the content of an anti-sexual-harassment campaign.
“We can’t have this approach that is, ‘What are you doing to make sure that you don’t get raped?’ This ‘reduce your vulnerability’ method isn’t just offensive, it’s ineffective. It does not work, because you don’t have any control over other people’s actions — you only have control over your own actions. You can do all the right things and still be a victim,” she said. “So now we’re looking at the bystander approach. How do we, as a society, in our campus environment, take responsibility?”
Dawn Rae Smith, a campus police officer at Concord University, said students living on their own for the first time in a campus environment creates “a perfect storm.”
“College campuses house a unique dynamic. As a law enforcement officer operating within that dynamic, my hope is, by addressing the issue of sexual violence with universities, we can create a healthy campus climate and educate to prevent future assaults,” Smith said. “A theme I see is students may not know what a healthy relationship looks like, or they struggle with defining boundaries. As the nation learns together, we need to look at the problem of sexual violence on campuses as a whole. What mindset can we change or deprogram? Students need to know they have a voice.”
Smith said the national push already is making a difference, but in order for there to be big change, there needs to be big involvement.
“The national spotlight is starting some great conversations on college campuses. [Neither] Law enforcement nor universities can predict the actions of an individual who chooses to commit a crime. What we, as law enforcement, can do is promote safety and educate the campus community on prevention tips and what to do if someone becomes affected by a sexual assault,” she said. “Awareness is a starting point. It is going to take effort to ensure compliance with the president’s vision, and that effort will have to come from the campus, law enforcement and community working together as a team.”
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-348-4814.