Iowa campuses fight sexual violence amid uncertainty

Will federal rule change affect efforts of Iowa's public universities?

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Iowa’s public universities, among those across the nation struggling to address the prevalence of sexual violence on campus, say they are not waiting for the U.S. Department of Education to settle on new rules before moving ahead.

The universities already have mounted extensive responses to the issue. Even this fall, the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have — to varying degrees — tapped new training tools, expanded curricula for students, hired staffers, convened committees, disseminated campus surveys and bolstered policies.

But in recent weeks, the federal guidance that was in play at the time those initiatives were crafted has been withdrawn. It was replaced with interim recommendations on how to interpret Title IX — the law barring federally supported educational programs from discriminating based on sex.

The interim guidance that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled in September aims to, she has said, roll back Obama-era interpretations that “failed too many students” — including both the accusers and the accused.

The temporary guidance, among other things, lets schools use a higher standard of proof in sex assault investigations and gives only the accused and not the accuser a right to appeal.

The former guidance placed a burden on the accused to make safety accommodations — like moving out of a residence hall or changing classes. The interim guidance does not. The former guidance defined the Title IX mandate for a “prompt” response as being in 60 days. Interim guidance drops that.

The interim guidance — in place while DeVos’ department embarks on a rule-making process to permanently replace it — is not legal mandate. But it does remove repercussions for universities that don’t comply with the old guidance. And that raises the question of how universities are adjusting their practices.

The UI says it’s not — at least for now.

“We do not foresee any changes in our policies under the temporary guidance,” according to a recent campus message from UI President Bruce Harreld and Monique DiCarlo, its Title IX and sexual misconduct response coordinator.

“We remain committed to ending sexual violence and sexual misconduct and will continue to work with campus and community partners to that end, as well as ensure survivors know they are believed, supported, and assisted,” according to their message.

ISU, UNI and the Board of Regents office — in response to questions from The Gazette — did not rule out changes.

“We are constantly reviewing and updating our policy to assure full compliance and best practices,” ISU Title IX Coordinator and Office of Equal Opportunity Director Margo Foreman wrote in an email.

UNI administrators reiterated a statement from the regents: “Sexual misconduct and violence is unacceptable and has no place at any of our institutions,” it said in part.

UI administrators, like those at ISU and UNI, said they’re following with interest the debate.

“It’s important that we look at the guidance to understand what the secretary of the Department of Education is trying to communicate to colleges and universities — that there is a concern about due process,” DiCarlo said. “We’re not just sitting around and waiting for the final guidance to come.”

The university already was “looking at ways to strengthen our resources for respondents to ensure that there was a fair and equitable process,” DiCarlo said.

Under investigation

The UI and ISU for years have been under the federal microscope.

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights has been investigating alleged Title IX violations at both schools.

The latest information shows three open investigations at the UI — one related to the school’s grievance procedures; a second related to sexual violence, grievance procedures and disability and race-based discrimination; and a third involving the UI athletics program. ISU also has three open investigations — for sexual violence and the school’s grievance procedures; sexual violence and disability discrimination; and disability discrimination.

In October, ISU’s former Title IX coordinator and equal opportunity director sued the school, asserting widespread Title IX violations.

Robinette Kelley — employed there between February 2013 and October 2015 — accused ISU of failing to provide her with the necessary authority and support, among other violations.

In court documents, Kelley cited a 2015 federal compliance review related to 2014 allegations from an ISU sex assault victim who asked the university to move the accused perpetrator from a nearby residence hall.

In that case, according to the lawsuit, Kelley reported finding a sexual assault had occurred but getting pushback from administrators and campus police. The dean did not move the accused perpetrator from the residence hall.

Kelley complained of ISU’s “decision to provide the perpetrator-respondent with leniency, deference, and more rights, benefits, and access to educational opportunities than the female victim.”

Hours before Kelley filed her lawsuit Oct. 12 in Polk County District Court, a former ISU student had filed a lawsuit against Kelley, accusing her of not properly investigating her case and providing equal protection.

Changes afoot

Other measures the UI has taken this fall to address the campus climate and sexual violence include new education on bystander intervention; faculty and staff training; and a course addressing sexual assault resistance.

UI Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils have updated bylaws to ensure mandatory in-house fraternity and sorority education includes at least one event related to violence prevention.

Two years after initiating its own campus climate survey, the UI disseminated a second iteration Oct. 24.

The first survey had a low response rate. Fewer than 3,000 of the potential 28,787 UI students completed it in 2015. Among those who did, 1 in 5 female undergraduates reported being raped since enrolling at the UI.

This year’s survey is meant to be shorter and easier to access.

ISU has new educational videos and materials for students and employees this fall. It has added a part-time specialist to investigate discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct.

This comes as the universities in recent years have seen an uptick in reports of sex offenses.

The UI Office of the Sexual Misconduct Response Coordinator in the current calendar year so far has received 111 reports of sexual assault or violence, compared with 123 in all of 2016 and 100 in all of 2015.

Those numbers do not mirror reports to police. Although many refer to incidents on campus, some relate to off-campus incidents or to experiences a student had before enrolling.

DiCarlo said some wonder if federal changes will affect report rates.

“I have heard us as professionals and colleagues who are collaborating … ask that question, wonder, worry, ‘Is it going to have an impact on people’s willingness to come forward and ask for help?’” she said.

Jennifer Becker — senior staff attorney with New York’s Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense and education fund — has been tracking response nationally to the interim guidance.

Few universities have announced changes, although some said they’ll revisit their practices.

“We’re concerned about these changes in the interim guidance because each of them are protections that really expanded a survivor’s rights on campus and were really vital in ensuring that survivors could continue their education as uninterrupted as possible,” Becker said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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