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Pandemic and changing Title IX rules pose challenges for reporting and investigation of sexual assault on campus

May 14, 2021

Between adapting to new Title IX rules from Trump-era Department of Education reforms and finding ways to reach and work with students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education (OGVPE) has faced a novel academic year. With new Title IX rules and drastically decreased COVID-19 risk expected to continue to impact campus during the fall of 2021, the office’s students and staff will have to adapt again in the near future. With uncertainty about timelines for change, students and staff reflect on what did and did not work this year and what they hope for in the future.

Director of Title IX Benje Douglas reported that, despite these changes, his day-to-day work with students still resembles pre-COVID-19 Title IX conversations.

“I would say the biggest thing for me is [that] I’ve heard from people who are obviously off-campus, and so working with them remotely … is a little bit unusual,” Douglas said in a Teams interview with the Orient. “But the initial conversations and the way I address [them] with people are really dictated by questions they have about the options that are available.”

Still, there have been major changes that have impacted Title IX on campus this year. The Title IX rule changes mandated that colleges and universities implement particular changes in their formal investigation processes, including adding a live hearing. At the same time, the College’s Campus Community Agreement and Residential Community Agreement required that students participating in Bowdoin’s testing protocol observe physical distancing requirements, and it explicitly banned actions associated with sexual intimacy, such as entering another student’s private bedroom.

“I don’t think that Title IX has been a priority for the administration at all. And I think that is really complicated. On the one hand, I think that COVID is a really big threat and the administration has to keep everyone safe and safety, in that sense, is the top concern … but I also think that, realistically, students were at a much greater threat of experiencing sexual violence than they were at contracting COVID [this semester], just based on the numbers,” Samantha Schwimmer ’21, who participated in a Title IX policy committee convened by Douglas, said. “We’re all doing our best to survive a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that sexual violence suddenly disappears.”

These rules, paired with the fact that Bowdoin does not have an amnesty policy—one that gives students who violate College policies unrelated to Title IX blanket protection from facing consequences for doing so if these violations were to come up in a Title IX investigation—during non-COVID-19 semesters, created a confusing message for students.

“Students struggle to navigate communication when it comes to their sex lives, and I think that that is almost magnified when a pandemic is involved because there’s so much more communication that needs to happen. I think that there was very little guidance given to pods about how to have those conversations, and I think that probably created more stress in an already really stressful semester,” Schwimmer said. “I think there was a lot of ambiguity and vagueness intentionally infused within policies, and I think that students would have benefited from a little bit more clarity.”

Douglas reported that, despite these obstacles, the numbers of investigations, alternative resolutions, contacts, reports, supportive measures and no-contact orders were all roughly the same as in past years.

“In the midst of something as challenging as a pandemic, people are still reaching out to get support from their friends and their teammates and their floors,” Douglas said. “Because almost always, if a person comes to me, it’s not immediately—they’ve talked to someone else who’s … suggested talking to me or they’ve talked to counseling or they’ve talked to somebody else.”

However, Douglas said that he was also concerned about all potential barriers to reporting, including those potentially posed by COVID-19 restrictions and the new Title IX rules.

“The fact that the numbers are staying the same approximately speaks to the fact that terrible things don’t just stop because pandemics are around, which is disheartening,” he said.

Director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education Lisa Peterson, who is a confidential resource on campus, said she has seen a slight uptick in the number of students who reached out to her this year in comparison with previous years.

“One theory I have about that is that actually, the physical and emotional space allowed by the Zoom platform …. lowered barriers for folks who I didn’t previously have relationships with to reach out and talk,” Peterson said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.

Peterson did have to adjust the OGVPE’s messaging about confidentiality after finding that students were hesitant to even participate in research about experiences surrounding dating and the hookup scene during the fall semester.

“That was an opportunity for us to both provide some reassurance about what my role means as a confidential resource, but also to allay any fears that their identity would even be disclosed at any point—that this was purely for my office to be able to do its job in violence prevention and healthy relationship promotion as best we can and really understand what’s showing up for students, how folks are experiencing campus,” Peterson said.

Peterson explained that, as a confidential resource, students can disclose experiences to her that will remain confidential at the College level and will not be passed to Douglas in the form of a report. Peterson, Director of the Sexuality, Women and Gender (SWAG) Center Kate Stern, Associate Director of SWAG Rachel Reinke, Director of the Rachel Lord Center of Religious and Spiritual Life Eduardo Pazos, Counseling Services and Health Services are other confidential resources available to students on campus.

For Counseling and Health Services, the only exception to this confidentiality is if a student discloses something that suggests that they or others at the College are in imminent danger. The other resources have this exception as well, and they could also theoretically be subpoenaed to testify in court if a Title IX case were to proceed in that venue.

“Students knowing that we don’t connect to the Title IX world can be really helpful because, as we know, there can be lots of barriers to folks reporting what happens,” Reinke said in a phone interview with the Orient.

Reinke, Schwimmer and Peterson all participated in the Title IX Policy Committee to talk through both the implementation of the new rules and College policies surrounding sexual assault, intimacy and COVID-19. Though intended to convene regularly, it has had an infrequent meeting schedule throughout the year.

“The committee hasn’t met consistently throughout the year. And I think that that is simultaneously frustrating, while also understandable. It was really difficult to put together a committee,” Schwimmer said. “People obviously care about this issue a lot, but everyone has been spread so thin this year that I just think it was really hard to get a committee together to give this [topic] the time that it deserves.”

Despite the infrequent meeting schedule, Reinke did note that the committee was aware of students’ concerns.

“I think that this has been a really difficult semester, but I definitely think that there has been an impact [from the lack of an amnesty policy],” Reinke said. “[This impact] is insightful enough for the committee to be paying attention and for administration to be paying attention.”

The College will release its statistics on Title IX reports and investigations in October, which will allow the community to see how many formal investigations and alternative resolutions took place this year. By then, though, the situation may look quite different. New Title IX guidelines are expected from the Biden administration, as is a return to relative post-COVID normalcy following the height of the pandemic in the United States.

“The election in November changed things,” Douglas said. “The Department of Education said, ‘We’re going to offer new guidance on sexual assault and Title IX.’ We’re waiting for that guidance to hit, and when it does, of course, we’ll always accept and be grateful for feedback from students.”

In addition to changes in Title IX work for Douglas, Peterson will be launching a new program on the prevention and education side of the OGVPE through a peer educator program. Under the program, students will be able to be trained to serve as resources to help connect their peers with the OGVPE. Unlike Safe Space, which operates by having students serve as peer resources around sexual violence, these peer educators will not have the burden of deciding whether they need to share information with a College staff member.

“I think having students be trained in resources and knowing how to connect people to them will be really important …  those students will just be asked, if they hear any disclosures, to share them with me, and then I will hold those and not connect folks unless it fits into [an exception to confidentiality],” Peterson said. “[This allows us to take] some of the responsibility off of students to be making that decision and put the responsibility on me, which feels healthier and more appropriate.”

For Schwimmer, who will be graduating this month, a safer campus in terms of sexual violence would also involve options outside of Title IX, including those that adopt a restorative justice framework.

“I think that Title IX definitely serves a purpose on campus, but I think that the majority of students who experience sexual violence don’t come to Title IX. … It is very limiting, and it is grounded in a legal system that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the value of Bowdoin or Bowdoin students,” Schwimmer said. “How can we find solutions to address sexual violence to make this place a space where survivors can go through processes that make sense for their healing that don’t necessarily coincide with a legal framework that will change all the time?”

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